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In Love With Living Things : NATURALIST, By Edward O. Wilson (Island Press: $24.95; 352 pp.) : JOURNEY TO THE ANTS: A Story of Scientific Exploration, By Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 224 pp.)

October 23, 1994|Jonathan Weiner | Jonathan Weiner's latest book, "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time,"is the 1994 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science

There are about ten thousand trillion ants on the planet at this moment. The secret of their world-wide success, as Wilson and Holldobler explain, is their highly social existence: "It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species." "Journey to the Ants" is a pocket version of the authors' masterpiece, "The Ants," and it does its job well. It is short, instantly accessible, and every chapter is packed with stories to make a reader gape. Some of these insects seem to be storytellers themselves; weaver ants "come very close to employing syntax in their chemical language--the use of various combinations of chemical 'words' to transmit different 'phrases.' " Together weaver ants manage to do what a single ant could never do: roll up big leaves to make their nests. "Journey to the Ants" describes this feat in fascinating detail, and concludes: "The formula is one of simple repetition: work begets success begets added work begets still more success." That's Wilson! That's also science.

In the early 1960s, "fueled by the amphetamine of ambition," Wilson began looking for rules that explain why working together pays: why social behavior evolved and how it got locked into the genes of so many species. In 1971, in his monumental book "Insect Societies," he made the case for the bugs. In 1975, in his even more monumental "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" he made the case for all social creatures--including us.

"Sociobiology" infuriated many readers. The opposition was led by Lewontin and Gould--again, right in Wilson's own department. Wilson tells the story of the controversy with the same grace and poise with which he tells the more painful stories of his childhood. "I have been blessed with brilliant enemies," he writes. Some of them saw sociobiology as a throwback to racism and eugenics, which it is not. Others saw it as an attempt to subsume the humanities and social sciences into branches of biology. It is not really that, either, but Wilson did sometimes write in as threatening a style as Watson, so that at least a few of his new enemies were earned. There were placards, bullhorns, protests in Harvard Square and an ambush with a bucket of ice-water.

Once again pain drove him upward, to champion a cause that everyone of the warring factions could believe in--conservation. No one has worked more passionately and effectively to conserve what has lately come to be called biodiversity. Wilson estimates that we are now losing half a percent of the species in the world's rain forests each year. "This," as he has written in a much-quoted essay, "is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."

"When the century began," Wilson writes, "people could still easily think of themselves as transcendent beings, dark angels confined to Earth awaiting redemption by either soul or intellect." Now we see ourselves as part of nature. Again, when this century began, we still saw ourselves as conquerors of nature; now we see ourselves as trying to preserve nature, and ourselves within it. In both these changes in human thought, Wilson has played an important role, and that is what makes the story of his life an important story.

"Naturalist" is a pleasure to read and reread, which is the mark of literature. It is one of the finest scientific memoirs ever written, by one of the finest scientists writing today. And "Journey to the Ants" should turn many readers into fans of its authors' favorite chunk of biodiversity, a group of living things that are at once weird and familiar. Among the new words that Wilson has coined in his long career is "biophilia": love of living things. Both these books should foster biophilia.

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