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.

He still has the run of several rooms. There is a study, lined floor to ceiling with books and papers, a room for his assistant, and a meeting room with a large table, more books, trophies, and dozens of pictures and sculptures of ants.

“You have to see this.” He gently guides me into an adjoining room filled with umpteen large specimen cases. He opens up just a few drawers, with polymorphic examples of a single species of ant—soldiers, nurses, workers, queens—ranging in size from 0.75mm to 52mm, each with a tiny handwritten label. How large is the collection? Wilson looks embarrassed; boasting seems beyond him. “Well, among the largest in the world, maybe in the top three, it’s hard to say.”

We sit at the meeting-room table, which is scattered with notes for a book Wilson is co-writing on a Spanish scientist, José Celestino Mutis. Wilson wants Mutis installed in a high place in the history of science. He arrived in Colombia from Spain in 1761 and built Bogota’s first observatory and botanical garden. Linnaeus wrote to him asking for specimens of the leafcutter ant, then almost unknown in Europe. Mutis put together the most complete treatise ever assembled on ants and it was lost at sea on the way to Sweden. He was the first to observe how the leafcutter ants snipped away at the leaves and brought the pieces to the nest to feed a garden of fungal mulch that they live off. “No one had studied ants before,” Wilson says. “There were no systems of classification, no names, nothing recorded about the habits of ants. Mutis had to do everything on his own.”

Wilson is clear about his starting point: all living things are subject to the same laws of physics and biology; there is no metaphysics. “All entities and processes in life come to life through natural selection. The law is all-encompassing.” He smiles mischievously. “Darwin is infuriatingly almost always right.” On top of his Pulitzers, he has won many teaching awards. His idea about teaching is to begin with a big thought, then work down to the facts. He has shown generations of students that the ant is lungless, so its muscles get their oxygen through fine holes in its exoskeleton. He has backed up earlier findings of the prodigious strength of the ant, which can lift many times its body weight above its head, not with its legs, which end in hooked claws, but with its mandibles. And he has asserted that, despite its small brain, the ant teaches its young, with foragers taking novices along in “tandem running”.

His biggest thought is sociobiology, which he has defined as “the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organisations”. This is the idea that eusocial insects—that is, those 20 or so species of ants, termites and bees that have developed complex civilisations—can teach us something about how humans interact with each other. Wilson says that in the eusocial species he has studied, the caste systems are supported by acts of seeming charity.

He has joked that Karl Marx had it right about socialism, he just got the wrong species. In his writings he is wont to emphasise the beneficence of ants, how an ant with a full stomach will regurgitate liquid food for those without, and how the old will venture into battle so that the young can survive. That may confirm some of the findings of “Mutual Aid”, the pioneering 1902 study of altruism in animals by the Russian anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin. But is this really socialism? To the casual observer the ant colony looks more like a Nazi ideal, where the weak are shed and fed upon, and those who have the slightest scent of another colony are sprayed with a chemical marking them out for death. It makes one glad to be human.

When Wilson unveiled sociobiology in 1975, it met with an angry response. Feminists, Marxists and Christians were opposed; so was Stephen Jay Gould, another Harvard biologist. But Wilson’s belief in sociobiology has not wavered. He leans forward and folds his hands together. “History is almost certainly colony against individual and colony against colony. If group selection is correct, what you would expect to find is an intense human desire to form groups that attack other groups; bands of brothers, teams.” Then comes the rider. “As shortages in oil and other energy sources increase, we will see insect traits. Group conflict is so deeply endemic that we will never diminish it until we confront it.”

This is more than a little alarming. Ants, after all, fight enormous battles to the death. If Wilson is right, regardless of political science, the future will be both more structured and remorseless in its violence. “With leafcutter ants”, he adds, “there is a 1-in-10,000 chance a queen will succeed in colonising a new colony. So there is an intense pressure to stick to the rules of an organisation.” He emphasises how an ant colony “insists upon absolute sovereignty” and demands “constant population growth and ever-rising productivity”, traits which seem to shared by humans.

A defining factor of ants is the speed at which they communicate through chemical cues. These pheromonal messages are simple—“Look, this is my caste, this my condition,” or, “Raise more soldiers”—but in the context of the super-organism they create a common intelligence capable of dealing with complicated problems. There are specialist jobs: many ant colonies have cemeteries. The cemetery workers live at the edge of the city, where their sole responsibility is to arrange the dead, and parts of limbs, and rubbish, and to bury it. They dispose of the dead both as a service and to protect the nest from pathogens.

These vivid details sound like fiction, and that is what Wilson has turned them into. Not content with his other roles, he is now a debutant novelist, author of “Anthill”, published this year, excerpted in the New Yorker, and a bestseller. The novel takes place in three parallel worlds: human, ant and the biosphere that contains them. “They rise together,” it begins, “they fall, they rise again, but in cycles so different in magnitude that each is virtually invisible to the others. The smallest are the ants, who build civilisations in the dirt. Their histories are epics that unfold on picnic grounds.”

The central section of the novel, “The Anthill Chronicles”, concerns the rise and fall of an ant colony in the same woods that the human characters walk through. In putting into a narrative form some of what he has learned from ants, his tendency is towards the classical. The colonies stand in for Troy and Ithaca, the warrior ants are influenced by the Myrmidons who fought alongside Achilles, and when in one remarkable sequence an ant queen is carried from one nest to another, sluggish, swollen, her egg-filled abdomen dragging along the ground, a “praetorian guard” of nurse workers hides her from view. The choice of the word “chronicle” is deliberate, bringing with it an echo of the heroic epic, whether Hellenic or Anglo-Saxon, or even of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”, and indeed there is something Martian about the description of the queen’s mate: “When the transformation was complete, the outer layer was stripped away and eaten by the workers, and the adult male stepped out, complete with wings, large eyes, massive genitalia, rudimentary jaws, tiny brain, and the one big purpose programmed in his tiny brain followed by a quick death…His life’s work would be a single ejaculation.”

Wilson’s questions about the carrying capacity of the planet are as powerful as anything in the environmental canon. On the record, he is optimistic. In his otherwise disturbing 2002 book “The Future of Life”, Wilson signed off on a positive note: “I believe we will choose wisely. A civilisation able to envision God and to embark on the colonisation of space will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbours.”

It is not clear if Wilson really believes this. His body language suggests a deeper pessimism, decently held back. If human nature resembles ant nature, then Wilson’s eyewitness experience of ant wars, which almost always end in the eradication of the weak and incidental, cannot have helped. A vivid example is seen in the Hawaiian Islands, where the invasive African big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) now lives in supercolonies of millions of individuals, dismembering and eating the Hawaiian ants in its path and other native insects, too, so that the pollination of native flora has slowed and invasive flora has taken over. Humans, Wilson seems to suggest, are a magnitude more destructive than the African big-headed ant.

He finds the widespread belief in America of an imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ perplexing. He describes himself as a secular humanist, pointing out there are only a few thousand humanists in America as against 15m Southern Baptists. In an attempt to reach these believers, Wilson wrote a book, “The Creation” (2006), in the form of a letter to an imagined Southern Baptist minister. It underlines the tension in the Christian tradition between Earth as paradise and Earth as dungheap. The closest he gets to religion is his theory of biophilia, which holds that humans are drawn to nature and often replenished by it. Implicit in biophilia is the idea that nature is the real world and our settlements are alien to it, floating on it, sometimes filled with refuse.

I ask Wilson if the internet might form human consciousness into a superorganism of sorts, along the lines of the French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s proposed Noosphere. He is equivocal. Talk of the internet seems to set him at a distance, a thinker of the 20th century. Yet he has made a significant contribution to the internet as a leading proponent of the Encyclopedia of Life. Its goal is to create an open-source record of every species on the planet. The project is going well, but Wilson remains frustrated at the lack of funding for taxonomy. More money is available to search for life in outer space than for identifying life on Earth. 

Extinction makes discovery a race against time. Only 12,500 of 22,000 ant species have been classified. Among Earth’s creatures as a whole, only some 1.8m species out of an upper estimate of 90m have been recorded. Wilson believes the extinction rate of species is a hundred times what it was before human civilisation began and that it will accelerate to a thousand times the pre-human level before the end of the century. “We need to demonstrate the existence of species and to show where they are.” As the living world is being diminished, understanding of it is deepening. “If I had to start over again, I would focus on archaea and bacteria.” He points out there are several million species of micro-organisms in a tonne of soil, most of them unknown, and speculates that plumes of bacterial life from other planets may exist on Earth. Understanding micro-organisms is essential because the human domain on Earth is far more limited than we credit. Wilson has pointed out that if humans were to die off, only three forms of human body and head lice would perish with us and even these would have a surviving line in gorilla lice. We have no place in water or in space and replicating our biosphere on another planet or an asteroid looks unlikely. “An alien planet is not in our genes,” he says, with finality.

For Wilson the question of conservation is a moral one. Forms of life should be protected because they exist. He dismisses the technophiles who hold that fertilised eggs of endangered species can be stored in liquid nitrogen and their ecosystems recreated in the future. “You would not make cordwood of musical instruments,” he argues, so why of creatures? Even so, his conservation solutions are orthodox: a hard sell on the value of nature and an ark-like approach to saving biodiverse hotspots such as Madagascar. He sets out the destruction under the acronym HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation, and overharvesting. Earth’s population will reach 9 billion well before 2050. “The challenge is to raise living standards of the poor while preserving as much nature as possible.”

That may demand vegetarianism and a post-consumerist paradigm. He worries about the level of denial—and not just among those awaiting the Second Coming. Even on the most optimistic projections, he points out, fossil-fuel consumption will keep going up, so will arable land, so too invasive species, so too temperature, and the availability of freshwater and food will go down. Another way of putting it is to say that we are entering an age of finitude, where every resource will be quantified and what we thought of as abundant will now be limited. “We are not doomed, but we are fragile. We have to pull ourselves together with honest self-understanding. In part, that has to be a process of science.” He pauses. “Now, you won’t get the answers out of religion, because they have their creation myths on the big questions of who we are, what we are, and where we are going.”

Boyhood looms ever larger for Wilson. He wants to return home to the Alabama coastal forests where he grew up—and where “Anthill” is set. The thought of still undocumented microfauna in the ravines that cut north from the Gulf of Mexico’s soupy waters cheers him tremendously. In finitude is plenitude, is one way to look at it, but then again there is the oil spill in the gulf, which brings all the darker questions to the fore. “Bless my soul,” he says, “that oil is going to end life in the gulf for a substantial period of time.”

An assistant ventures in: the professor has to get back to work on the Mutis manuscript. I take the lift down through the museum and walk out into the hot day. I am struck by how political the interview has been. Wilson has brought into question species survival and coolly undercut what it meant to be human. No free will, no spirit, no soul, not really, and the mind of a newborn not a tabula rasa but a floppy disc imprinted with the natural selection of creatures gone before. A phrase Tom Wolfe used in the Darwin II essay rattles in my head. “We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal.” Wilson did not see the interview in political terms. He was surprised when I linked the question of biocapacity—food security—to political risk in African countries. He seemed to view the struggle of humans, not coldly, but nevertheless in the manner of Homeric ants marching to the picnic ground.

Darwin II has his critics. Jerry Fodor, an influential cognitive thinker at Rutgers University, ripped apart Wilson’s book “Consilience” (1998), calling it a “shambles”. He argued that Wilson’s biological laws were themselves subject to constructs of the mind and that Wilson’s push into holism was philosophically flawed. The entire field of neurology, Fodor added for good measure, had done less for the study of thought than, say, Alan Turing’s rules of computation. “The burden of the unity of science is maybe methodological or ontological, but certainly not psychological or neurological.” In other words, Wilson has walked out on a plank in his call for a consilience between science and other disciplines, something that social scientists anyway think is akin to the pope calling Anglicans back into the one true church. Even so, what is striking about Wilson’s critics is how few of them address his central point, the reason he ventured to become a public figure at all, which is that time is short, and humans can only save themselves by joining forces, becoming more positively antlike, so biologists with historians, economists, potters, gardeners and so on.

My sense of vertigo lasts through lunch. I sit at a stool by the window of a pizza parlour in Cambridge, contemplating our swarming kind, the ants at our feet, the bacteria inside and below us, existing without sunlight. Wilson has served as a corrective, placing us in a larger sweep of life and time. A line of his comes back to me that feels true, at once kindly and devastating: “We were not driven from Eden. Instead, we destroyed most of it.”

J.M. Ledgard is The Economist's Nairobi correspondent and author of "Giraffe". His last piece for Intelligent Life was on Marienbad

Illustrations Max Ellis