Good Reads: On the Shoulders of Ants

Sometimes people judge nature books by how big they are, or how many full-color photos they contain.

Good Reads
Published November 21, 2013 9:36 PM
5 min read


Good ReadsSometimes people judge nature books by how big they are, or how many full-color photos they contain.


By Bill Lawyer  


Good ReadsSometimes people judge nature books by how big they are, or how many full-color photos they contain. On that basis, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, “Letters To A Young Scientist,” comes up wanting. It’s less than 8 inches high by less than 5 inches wide: 228 pages of actual text and illustrations. The only color photo is of the author, located on the rear cover jacket. 


But if ever there is a case of “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” this is it. 


For one thing, the book draws upon Wilson’s more than 65 years of scientific endeavors. Now 83 and an emeritus professor in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, Wilson has written over 26 major works within the general topic of evolutionary biology, two of which were awarded Pulitzer Prizes. 


The list of his major works is located at the beginning of the book and it provides an overview of the broad scope of his endeavors. It even includes one novel – “Anthill.” 


His 2012 work, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” was on the NY Times best-seller list – an unusual occurrence for scientific non-fiction. 


Just two months after the April publication of “Letters,” Wilson was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal for his “commitment to biodiversity through a lifetime of research and writing.”


Perhaps the appropriate aphorism for describing this book is “good things often come in small packages.” 


While the book is entitled “Letters To A Young Scientist,” it could just as easily be called “Letters From A Young Scientist” – Wilson’s writings evoke the passion that he has had for the subject going back to his pre-teen nature exploration years in southern Alabama. By high school, he was known as a child prodigy when it came to insects in general, and ants in particular. 


Two black-and-white photos juxtaposed on page 94 show Wilson collecting insects with a sweep net – the first at the age of 13 in Alabama, and the second in Mozambique at the age of 82! He admits that while the locations of his field study have broadened, “I have never changed.”


Wilson doesn’t mention it in “Letters,” but he has pursued his passion for natural history field study even after he was blinded in one eye as a child, and after he lost partial hearing before the age of 20. He learned to “focus” on close-up examination that allowed him to continue his study of insects and other small invertebrates despite the lack of binocular vision. 


One theme that runs through the book is mentoring – the people he mentored and the people who mentored him. In fact, the book is dedicated to two of those who mentored him – Ralph Chermock and William L Brown. Chermock, a Cornell-trained evolutionary biologist in the heart of the Bible belt, was Wilson’s professor and mentor at the University of Alabama. 


Brown was a Ph.D. student at Harvard whose long-distance mentoring of Wilson while he was still an undergrad probably insured that Wilson would be admitted to Harvard as a grad student and stay on from 1951 till now. 


The book is in the form of 21 “letters” to a hypothetical “young” scientist. He divides them into five sections. No doubt he hopes that, in addition to young scientists, many people of all ages with only minimal scientific background will find the letters enjoyable reading. That’s because throughout the book Wilson goes back and forth between hard science and the wonders of discovery about the world around us.


In the prologue, Wilson notes that even though science and technology have greatly increased our knowledge of life on earth, there are still huge gaps that need to be filled. “You made the right choice,” he assures his young scientist readers. 


In the “Path To Follow” section, Wilson uses his childhood nature explorations to drive home the importance of “first passion, then training.” He then describes the need to bring mathematics to bear in becoming a scientist. Using the example of Darwin’s exploration of the natural history of South America, he notes that math is no good without some sort of scientific content to “make use of mathematical equations.” 


Using his life-long study of ants as an example, Wilson advises that young scientists choose a subject that is not widely studied, so that they will quickly become an “expert in the field.” 


It would be fair to say that Wilson’s personal and academic life was built on the shoulders of ants as much as the scientists who were his predecessors. His fascination with ants has led him to travel all around the world seeking the answers to countless questions about how they fit into the world’s ecosystems. 


In the section entitled “The Creative Process,” Wilson uses his early research on insect pheromones and Darwin’s research on evolution of birds and mammals to show how science proceeds from observations to hypotheses to theories and facts. 


This theme is continued in the “A Life In Science” section, where he uses his career from the 1970s to the present to show how one project has led to another. While his work has taken him to all the world’s continents, Wilson says that one of his highlights was participating in an intensive “Bioblitz” of New York’s Central Park in 2006. The Explorer’s Club, known primarily for organizing trips to exotic locales, sponsored the event. Wilson notes that there’s plenty of science to be explored right in one’s own backyard. 


The last two sections deal with applying specific research to “Theory and the Big Picture” and “Truth and Ethics.” Here he touches upon the controversy that arose in the 1970s and 80s regarding his writings on socio-biology – how genetics impact social behavior among humans as well as other animals. Controversy also came as religious groups reacted to his assertion that creationism and intelligent design are not science. 


Wilson’s book spans the history of natural science and the environment from the years before the first Earth Day (1970) to today’s confrontation with climate change. It also parallels and in some ways has been an inspiration for the evolutionary growth of recreational parks into nature centers around the world. 


In Rye, for example, the Rye Nature Center was established in 1965. The Marshlands and Edith Read sanctuaries came in the 70s and 80s. All have adopted Wilson’s mission of developing hands-on field study and love of nature, in the hope of raising future generations of “young (or young at heart) scientists” to bring their knowledge of the world around us to bear on the challenges ahead. 


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