Walking “the tightrope of existence”: E. O. Wilson’s Philosophy Comes to Life in the “Anthill Chronicles”

By Kaitlin Gowan Anthill, renowned biologist and environmentalist E.O. Wilson’s first novel, follows Raphael Semmes Cody through a childhood mesmerized by the wonders of the Nokobee Tract and Dead Owl Cove to an adult life devoted to preserving the natural environment. The middle section of the novel involving Raff’s senior thesis, titled, the "Anthill Chronicles," is focused on the ant colonies that resided in the natural environment where he spent his childhood and appears somewhat predictable to a reader of the novel who understands Raff’s devotion to the wildlife of the Cove. Beneath the surface of Raff’s thesis, Wilson’s philosophy and his discourse on coevolution, nature, society and ultimately, the need for living a sustainable life as a species can be better understood. The "Anthill Chronicles" presents an overarching and hard to ignore analogy of ant and ant society to humans and human civilization. The details of Supercolony put forth in the "Anthill Chronicles" lead us to question the importance, or lack thereof, of our own existence within and as a part of nature.

Initially, the "Chronicles" highlight how ant colonies function as altruistic superorganisms. This quickly leads to a discussion of Supercolony, an ant colony that conquered and broke all rules of ant-dom due to what Wilson refers to as a "simple hereditary change with a profound social consequence" (218). What at first appears as a positive genetic mutation for Supercolony, quickly changes. No longer does the reader encounter the smart, productive superorganism that is an ant colony. Rather, what is presented to the reader is the danger and potential threat to life that comes with a mutated gene, a "mistake." Where initially Wilson may infer a correlation, here he makes undeniably strong and deliberate connections to the human race and its relationship with the environment.

The danger of Supercolony is rooted entirely in the fact that "it was out of balance with nature" (225). The chaotic growth of Supercolony, initially positive, ultimately results in its downfall. Wilson explains the issue of Supercolony as one similar to those facing an overpopulated human city: "the ecosystem as a whole, their life support, was suffering" (227). This domination and lack of balance with nature is connected with the destruction of the social power structure within the colony. The exploitation of resources, which occurred due to the expansion of Supercolony as a result of the mutated gene is an essential theme to the cautionary tale of Supercolony and one that is critical to our understanding of and need for a sustainable lifestyle. Even though Supercolony created an empire of peace for itself, it had done so through domination of enemy ants and the environment. Power clouds the understanding of nature, and as Wilson describes, nothing, not even Supercolony, can be in complete control. For Wilson, Supercolony shows how a genetic mutation can lead to destruction. "A price had to be paid, first by the ecosystem and then …by Supercolony itself" (Wilson 228).

In the end, taking control of nature leads to the demise of Supercolony and as Wilson claims, this was expected, "There should be nothing surprising about the looming crisis of Supercolony. Every species walks a tightrope through ecological time. Launched upon it, there is only one way to keep going, a thousand ways to fall off. That is the way evolution works, and that is how the natural world as a whole runs itself" (228). This tightrope walk is exacerbated by chance that occurs in evolution. What one day is a benefit might contribute to the destruction of a civilization the next. We understand that for Wilson, through his philosophy of Consilience, a text focused on gene-culture coevolution, society and species develop and evolve together and there is no way to know what will be beneficial in the future. There is no way to tell whether a mutation will give rise to a great cultural and societal evolution that allows for a coexistence between species and nature eternally or if it will be the change that throws one off the tightrope of existence (228). There is no programmed future for species; success and survival are merely elements of "luck" (228). What appeared initially to be of great benefit to Supercolony ultimately wrote its future of demise, it fell off the tightrope, and as Wilson says, "In this vital way it resembled the great human anthill above and around it" (228).

We exist, as humans, on this same tightrope of nature. We, like Supercolony, exploit that which is around us and continue to believe we are in control and complete power. But Wilson warns against this. There is only nature. There are only genes. There is only evolution. And just as in the Nokobee Tract, Wilson shows that ancient nature will win out and the "chain of cycles [will continue] as it had for thousands of years" (247).  Without a serious effort to live a more sustainable life, one that values and respects nature rather than exploits it; without a serious change, Wilson warns, humanity will follow the path of Supercolony and fall "off the tightrope of existence" (228).

References

Wilson, E. O. Anthill: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

---. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1998. Print.

Contributor’s Biography

Kaitlin Gowan is currently a doctoral student in literature at Arizona State University.  She received her Master’s degree from Arizona State University in the spring of 2011 and previous to that, she completed a BA in English at the University of San Diego.  Kaitlin’s academic interests center on studies of the sublime specifically the idea of the "negative sublime" in the writings of the later Romantic poets and novelists.  She is also interested in the interconnectedness of science and literature during the Romantic age.

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