A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson
A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.
Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”
Sam Kean: Do you think your career or your scientific work have been different if you’d done a novel very early on as opposed to a later stage?
EW: That’s an unanswerable question because it would never have occurred to me to write a novel early on. I never would have had any ambition like that. All my hopes, all my dreams were to be a scientist. I didn’t even get into popular nonfiction until—I think the earliest date you could put on it would be 1978. That would be On Human Nature. That’s the first time I ever wrote a book for a popular audience, a broad audience.
SK: Was that as hard as writing this novel, or was that a little easier?
EW: Oh, that was much easier. Nonfiction is a lot easier than fiction. Or I should say, good fiction is a lot harder to write than good nonfiction.
SK: Do you think you would have persisted with the novel if, like with many aspiring novelists, it would have taken five or ten years to get it published?
EW: I knew that my novel would be published immediately because it was the publisher and my editor who urged me to write it. So it never entered my head. I can’t even answer the question of how I’d feel about it if it was going to be delayed that long.
SK: Did you ever worry that someone would criticize you for, I guess for lack of a better term, “cutting in line.” Getting a story published in the New Yorker, for instance, is very prestigious, very hard for a writer to do.
EW: True. It’s certainly a good thing to happen to a fiction writer. But no, I think it deserved to be in the New Yorker. After it was published, the response to that piece was nationwide. It was tremendous. It quickly rose to I think the third position in terms of letters to the editor to the New Yorker—virtually all of which were highly favorable.
SK: Third all time?
EW: No, over a three-week period. It was the only fiction in the top five, so that’s the kind of response it got. So I feel it was well-placed, with that response.
SK: You mentioned another book you have. Do you have any “big” books coming out soon, anything you really feel is big or new or different?
EW: With Bert Hölldobler, I’m bringing out a book on the leaf-cutter ants, and the subtitle tells you a lot. It’ll be out late in 2010. This is nonfiction. The title is, The Leaf-Cutter Ants. And the subtitle is Civilization by instinct. Because the leaf-cutter ants are the ultimate superorganism, they have the most advanced civilization by instinct. They have the most complex societies, not just among insects, but I guess you would say among all animals, among non-human creatures. They’re also among the most heavily studied.
SK: Where did you come up with the name for the protagonist, Raphael Semmes Cody?
EW: Raphael Semmes is a famous figure in Civil War history. He was the Confederacy’s, the South’s, naval hero, and he sank a lot of northern shipping before he was finally trapped and his ship was sunk. So he’s a heroic figure. I chose his name primarily because a main theme in the book—I have several themes like this, but this is one of them—is the conflict between his mother and his father. His mother is a Semmes. She’s a Mobile Semmes, and I made the Semmes in them the upper part of the moneyed class of Mobile.
SK: Do you yourself know some Semmes?
EW: Yes. But I made sure there were no Semmes listed in the Mobile directory today, so there couldn’t be any resemblance.
At any rate, the mother is a Semmes. She falls in love, too soon and before her family wakes up and can do anything about it, with a redneck, with a working-class guy. Who was not the best possible person even within redneck circles to be a husband. Although he does okay. He gets on okay.
His name is Cody—that’s a good, solid, working class name. So by having the mother name her son after the great Confederate naval hero, she preserves in him her hopes. Preserving her hopes of getting back into the upper reaches and into its privileges and comforts. She realizes too late that she made a mistake and she can’t get out of it. So she really sees in her son, the only hope she has of re-establishing herself, and she does that partly by the name.
And of course by the end of the book she has substantially succeeded. She’s accepted back within to the family within Mobile, and within Marybelle, the old mansion. And Cyrus, her brother, who’s head of the family now, he wants Raphael to get into that upper level as badly as his mother does. So there you go—that’s the reason for that choice.
SK: Okay. I wondered if it had anything to do with the archangel Raphael, you know, sort of revenge for sins.
EW: Oh, no. Raphael Semmes is just the great naval hero. There’s no symbolic or other meaning to it. Except that I wanted it to be a very southern U.S. name, and I wanted it to be the label that the mother put on her hopes of re-attaining her status. Because I use the book to distinguish classes now existing in the white society and the conflicts between them, and how this plays out with reference to obtaining a true land ethic in the south.
It’s often the moneyed class—the big-time developers and ambitious businessmen, like his Uncle Cyrus. He just wants to create a continuous suburban area through there. They are among the ones who are the worst. They have the strong potential to block proper land management. But they’re changing. I even have a scene with the book’s “black knight,” the head of Sunderland Associates. Finally Raphael wins him over by saying, “Look, this is the future. Not just cutting the forest and building more and more houses—but preservation is the future.” He brings him over, and Mr. Sutherland says to him, “To tell the truth”—he goes through a conversion—“To tell you the truth, Raff,” he says, “I never really did want to cover that beautiful place with a bunch of tacky little houses.”
SK: Personally, do you feel the need that we have to compromise a little bit in preserving pristine land, and maybe put up some houses in an area, just to make sure that somebody’s there? Or would you rather just block it off, like Raphael had hoped?
EW: Good for you. Good for you for catching that. Of course, the best thing would have been for the state of Alabama or for a very wealthy person to donate in the range of $15 million or $20 million to buy it and set it aside. And incidentally, if you note the names of the two men to whom I dedicate this book [M.C. Davis and Sam Shine], they do just that kind of thing independently. Two very wealthy men, natives to that area, who have large fortunes and have been putting big chunks of it into buying land that could be made into reserves.
But failing that, I knew there had to be a middle way, and I used the book to illustrate how that middle way would go. Is it a compromise? No question. Part of the most interesting part of the land in the book, along the shore, is going to be altered. But most of the Nokobee track [the disputed land in the novel] is going to be saved as a nature reserve.
And I didn’t want to have some further scene of conflict, where there’s a “smack down” as we call these wrestling matches, and a small war, and finally the environmentalists win. That’s not how those people are down there. That’s not real. What’s real is the way I did it. I wanted to show these extremely difficult situations. You may remember the talk that Raphael has with the professor of environmental law at Harvard, and the guy just throws his hands up and says, “I don’t know you you’re going to settle this [dispute over Nokobee], Raff!” And Raff knows—that how he develops—Raff knows he’s got to get the right people on his side, not just the greens coming up, but he has to get the developers themselves to do it in their self-interest.
And the result is a compromise: A fair chunk of Nokobee gets altered. But it’s going to be put in the hands of people who are buying that property because they are anxious to keep it as it is. That’s a major movement now in the United States, a conservation movement. Wealthy landowners build their second or thirds homes, or even their retirement homes, in places where they have access to nature. Not all of them want to be on the edge of a golf course. More and more numbers of them are coming into areas like Nokobee, trying to find a place that’s beautiful, a natural environment.
SK: Well, that was all the questions I had.
EW: Well, you asked a lot. You covered everything—you exhausted that novel!
But one more aspect of the novel: It’s one more way to press, the way that I could contribute…
My favorite story along these lines has to do with this great evangelist of the 1920s. I heard a record of him. What’s his name… ? It’s gone out of my head. Anyway, I heard a record of him giving one these hellfire sermons of the kind that’s typical of Southern evangelicals. And here’s what he said, and here’s the accent—I can do it real well, having grown up with it.
[Wilson drops in a comically exaggerated drawl…]
I’ma agains’ sin. I hayte sin sooo much, I’ma gonna fight it ‘til I cain’t move my airms no more.
[Wilson flops down dramatically in his chair, arms limp]
And when I cain’t move my airms no more, I’ma a gonna byte sin.
[He snaps his jaws.]
And when all my teeth falls out, I’ma gonna gum it.
[Laughs] I love that. That’s what I’m doing. I’m gumming it.