They work together, share food and send their elders into battle to protect the young. And the world authority on them thinks they have a lot to teach us. J.M. Ledgard goes to Harvard to discuss ants, and more, with E.O. Wilson

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010

What do you think about when you think about ants? An aerial view perhaps, looking down at a line of ants moving along a trail. Go closer. If you stay with it, your view may twist, your ants grow, become singular, each an alien creature, somehow militarised. As primitives we ate them, they were our crunch, and now they are lodged in our subconscious. We know their noise in the soil, even if we do not acknowledge it. The mandibles dominate, snipping, giving the ant its name in Old English, “aemette”, from the proto-Germanic ai mait, meaning to cut away, or to cut off. Even in that early time in Anglo-Saxon lands there was a grim sense of ants swarming, and now we know that army ants move in waves of a million or more, eating through anything in their path, someone staked and tied to the ground, for instance.

The blank eyes, the glands under the jawbone secreting pheromones that signal alarm, laid down by foraging ants and reinforced by following ants to show the shortest possible route to a source of food. The antennae, cantilevered at the elbow, twitching at speeds our eye cannot follow. The slender waist, the shimmer and bristle of the exoskeleton, red or black, metallic, so that the ant corpse rots from within, leaving the armour intact. Whereas we are jellies, prick us and do we not bleed...? One way or another, when we think about ants, we tend not to think they are a part of us, or that they have something fundamental to say about us. But they probably do.

It all started with a poke in the eye for a seven-year-old boy, out fishing in Alabama. It was 1936, and Ed Wilson’s parents had just divorced, leaving him lonely and introspective. When he pulled up his rod, a pinfish swung into his face and its spine blinded him in one eye. The accident had lasting repercussions. If Wilson had been sighted in both eyes, he might have been drawn to the megafauna, or passed fit for the United States Army and killed in Korea, or otherwise diverted from being an exceptional young biologist. As it was, he came to be reliant on what he could see up close and through a microscope and so was ineluctably drawn to the microfauna.

E.O. Wilson is the ant man. Over six decades at Harvard University he has discovered more about ants than anyone else in history. He has thrown into relief for the general public just how important ants are—how they represent 25% or more of the insect biomass on the planet, how collectively they weigh more than all the humans in the world, how they assist humans by aerating the soil, suturing wounds, or, as in South Africa, harvesting the rooibos seeds for farm workers to collect. And how ancient they are: in 1966 Wilson and his colleagues identified an ant in a shard of amber that was 80m years old. Ants emerged along with flowering plants 130m years ago. By contrast, the genus Homo diverged 2m years ago, has existed as Homo sapiens for a fraction of that time, with a civilisation of 20,000 years or so.

Wilson arrived at Harvard from the University of Alabama in 1953 and proved his mettle by traversing the tropics in search of undiscovered ant species. He helped uncover the diversity of ants in Amazonia and in the Orinoco basin. He was one of the first outsiders to climb the remote mountain ranges in Papua New Guinea, gathering ants and frogs in the chill mists. His studies were so thorough they laid the groundwork for the new field of biogeography. Every summer he set out, and every autumn he returned to Boston, studying the ants under the microscope into the winter, mapping all the features down to the talons on the claws of each of the six legs, and the milky sacs in the body of a queen which she would draw on for ten years or more.

None of this would have amounted to much in the eyes of the outside world had Wilson not got into the behaviour of ants and from there into comparisons with human nature. He has written 24 books and 400 scientific papers. Two of his books—“On Human Nature” (1978) and “The Ants” (1990, with Bert Hölldobler)—have won the Pulitzer prize. Tom Wolfe, the American journalist, described him as “Darwin II”. I think what Wolfe meant was that Wilson’s thinking about the biological basis of social and group behaviour would fundamentally alter man’s perception of himself. Wilson contends not just that we are primates, made in nobody’s image, but that the same laws of population biology and evolutionary theory that govern behaviour in ants also govern us.

Wilson works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he keeps an office as emeritus professor of entomology and honorary curator of the insect collection. It’s between terms when I wander across the Harvard Yard to meet him, and there are not many people on the campus, just a few Chinese taking pictures of each other on the library steps. I press the black lift buttons in sequence, as instructed, to overshoot the museum, the sound of children sidling up to the stuffed sloth, and get to Wilson’s floor. When the doors open, there is a smell of mothballs and formaldehyde, reminiscent of mortuaries in poor countries, but everything here is tidy, the smells issue from cabinets and drawers, and there is a calming effect of knowledge, thought and routine. Wilson greets me warmly and insists on showing me around. At 81 he is professorial and grandfatherly at the same time, just as he appears on YouTube. His manners and speech are Southern. “You know biology is a beautifully messy subject,” he says, by way of introduction. The “beautifully” is pure Alabama, the flourish of one who likes to tell stories.