Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson is often called the father of sociobiology, the study of how biology helps determine social organization. Once a controversial figure, today he's widely-respected as a thinker and environmentalist. And now he's written a science fiction novel.
That is to say, he's written a fiction novel that is entirely about science. The novel is called Anthill, and combines some elements of the scientist's life (his Southern boyhood, for example) with his passion for the study of ant societies. His monumental, early 1970s work Sociobiology was largely influenced by his study of ants, and the ways that they are programmed by their biology to form certain kinds of social structures. When Wilson first began writing about sociobiology, he enraged his fellow biologists - especially his colleague Stephen Jay Gould, who was Wilson's most eloquent critic. *
Now Wilson's goal seems to be to use fiction to inspire people to protect the environment. In one interview, he calls the book his version of To Kill A Mockingbird, because the plight of the environment is as important today as civil rights were at the time of Harper Lee's publication of her novel. Here is how publisher Norton & Co. describes the book:
[Anthill] follows the adventures of Raff, a modern-day Huck Finn, whose improbable love of ants ends up transforming his own life and those around him. Alarmed by condo developers who are intent on destroying Alabama's endangered Nokobee tract, Raff idealistically heads off to law school. Returning home, he encounters the angry and corrupt ghosts of an old South he thought had disappeared. The sacred woods he must now travel through to save Lake Nokobee are teeming with unimaginable danger.
The New Yorker has published a chapter from the novel, called Trailhead, that is an incredibly gripping story of what happens to an ant colony in the Nokobee area after its twenty-year-old queen dies. Here's an excerpt:
If the Trailhead Colony could not understand the history of its own species, how much did it understand of its current condition? How could it make the right decisions for survival? In fact, the Trailhead Colony knew a great deal. Worker ants are far more than automated specks running around on the ground. Even with a brain one-millionth the size of a human's, an ant can learn a simple maze half as fast as a laboratory rat, and remember the directions to as many as five different destinations when she forages away from the nest. After exploring a new terrain, a worker can integrate all the seemingly haphazard twists and loops she made and, amazingly, return to the nest in a straight line. She can learn and recall the special odor of the colony to which she belongs. The Trailhead Colony, when all the learning and thought of its workers came together, was very smart, by insect standards-and, with the unifying power of its Queen lost and its population growth plummeting, it needed to call on that group intelligence to regain its balance.
When one of the soldier-queens dominated its rivals and became the new queen, the recovery of the colony seemed to be under way. A stream of eggs was laid. Larvae began to fill the empty brood chambers. Their odor and hunger signals joined with the pheromones of the new Soldier-Queen and spread through the nest. The power was returning. More foragers took the field.
The renewed activity was short-lived, however. The colony was doomed by a hereditary trait even more basic than the altruism of the workers and the pheromonal ties that bound them together. The Trailheaders, along with all ants of all kinds that have ever existed, back to the birth of ants, in the late Jurassic period, used a strange but elegant genetic method to fix the sex of an individual at birth. Fertilized eggs develop into females, which can become queens or workers, and unfertilized eggs develop into males, which can do nothing but inseminate females. The Soldier-Queen had never mated. Her children all arose from unfertilized eggs and were therefore male drones, contributing nothing to the welfare of the colony. They had weak mandibles and small brains but huge eyes and genitalia. They were wondrously adapted for mating after flying up in the air with virgin queens, but even if they managed to accomplish this it would do nothing for the Trailhead Colony. The males created by the Soldier-Queen would not mate with her or with other potential soldier-queens. They were programmed to mate only during nuptial flights away from the nest.
Anthill comes out in April. You can pre-order it via Norton & Co.
* At the heart of the sociobiology controversy was the question of whether human social structures are the result of biological evolution. Detractors such as Gould argued that sociobiology was biological determinism, and could be used to justify racism and sexism, as well as the "naturalness" of all class divisions. Proponents argued that sociobiology was simply one way to understand how evolution affects social arrangements as well as biological characteristics.
A fairly even-handed discussion of the sociobiology debate can be found on Wikipedia, and a good primary source for the debate, which still rages, can be found in this interesting letter to the New York Review of Books, written by a group of scientists discussing the flaws in one E.O. Wilson's more recent books about evolution, called On Human Nature.