Thursday, June 09, 2011

Reflections: Anthill

Dr. Edward Wilson is a professor of Entomology at Harvard University, and the co-author of the Pulitzer prize winning book, The Ants. Dr. Wilson is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on everything related to Ants. I have been wanting to read his award winning book for a long long time. My interest in the intelligent and altruistic little insects resurfaced while watching an episode of the award winning documentary, Life, that featured the intelligent ways in which ants built their colonies. That was when I also heard that Dr. Wilson had recently published a book of fiction that incorporates the details of ant colonies, and emphasizes the importance of conserving Nature and its varied little seemingly insignificant creatures to maintain the delicate ecosystem and biosphere. So there I was, checking out this book.

You may wonder why I chose to dedicate a whole paragraph for the prologue. Well, the prologue says it all. The book is by an accomplished academician and expert naturalist. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Wilson stated that he wanted to write a book of fiction in order to spread awareness on the importance and magnificence of every single minuscule creature on this planet, and the ways in which they affect us, if their habitats are senselessly destroyed. He hoped more people - adults and kids would pick a novel that has facts diluted in a story, than read his papers or other non-fiction books. A noble intention, for sure. But an academic can only “dilute” so much :). I really liked the book, and was fascinated by the facts, but I don’t think it would appeal to the “lay” reader who wants more story. It is only for (crazy) people like me, who are interested about Ants and the ecosystem. It is unfortunately not an easy read for young adults, as Dr. Wilson hoped.

This is the synopsis - Raff is a young boy who grows up being highly curious and fascinated by insects, animals, and Nature. Lucky for him, he lives in a small town in Alabama that adjoins dense forests that abound with several different species of reptiles, birds, and insects. He spends most of his time in the Nokobee tract, home to a unique species of Ants that builds remarkably huge and complex colonies. When it’s time to head to college, Raff realizes that the Nokobee tract is under a threat to be destroyed. He vows to save it, and dedicates his life’s mission to preserve it.

Dr. Wilson’s prose is sharp and intelligent. He takes his time to provide a background and story to all his characters. The book addresses the vociferous debate between the Naturalists and the religiously conservative groups, on whether the environment, the birds and the animals are meant to be conserved, or whether God intended us humans to use them to suit our needs till He arrived on Judgement Day.

Although the story is predictable, the whole section on Ants was the highlight for me. Dr. Wilson shows how similar Ant colonies are to human civilization - there are the same territorial wars, similar defenses, and the familiar pressure to survive and procreate. However, we differ on one crucial aspect - ants are far more altruistic than human societies have ever been and will probably ever be! He shows us the glorious strategies of Natural selection.

It was also interesting and informative to learn about the various laws and morally dubious loopholes that lawyers and agencies use to fight over a piece of land.

In all, it was an interesting read that has only increased my awe and interest in Ants. I hope to read his award winning book soon. 


Meens said...

"A noble intention, for sure. But an academic can only “dilute” so much :)"

"..lay reader"

Nice :)

Neeraja said...

Didn't mean it to come out so snobbish! Just meant that parts of the book read like a journal, and that's probably not very appealing to many...

Meens said...

oh!! I didn't think of those lines in that "snobbish" angle at all! :) I think anyone who knows you wouldn't
:) I actually liked your humor :)

Neeraja said...

Haha, thank you then :). But I still could have sounded a little less snooty I guess ;)

Karthik said...

This sounds interesting ! I think few academics are good at popular writing! I think they worry about sounding imprecise, and overwhelm the poor reader with way too much detail !:-)

Neeraja said...

True, Karthik. It's not just the details, but the way the details are conveyed. In this book, I expected the details to be layered with the story. But he dedicated 100 pages or so just to talk about Ants :)