Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Writing like a dying anthill

The biologist E. O. Wilson published a fascinating story in The New Yorker this week depicting the life of an ant colony, using a literary narrative style generally reserved for human subjects. Wilson is an accomplished writer and scientist, as I’ve said before in posting about his account of ‘biophilia’, the idea that humans are instinctively attracted to life in all forms. His story, ‘Trailhead’, conjures the routines and dramas of life in the ants’ nest. It provides scientific insights without losing narrative tension, recalling Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind and Brian Clarke’s The Stream.

One of the difficulties in Wilson’s project is the question of how to imagine or talk about ants’ motivations and desires in human language. Wilson is careful to write in terms of instinctive reactions and pheromone signals. It may not be possible or desirable to write about other species without any anthropomorphism, but in ‘Trailhead’ Wilson at least tries to be as accurate as possible in his description of the ants’ sensory language. Usually he represents ants’ behaviour as simple fact, but he does not try disguise the way in which human perspective inevitably colours the tale, as in this description of ant-altruism:

‘Dying workers often left the nest completely, thereby avoiding the spread of infectious diseases. Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.’


The story centres upon the decline of the colony following the queen’s death, which is reported in the first sentence. The collapse gathers pace towards the end, culminating in a shocking scene of warfare, panic and horror.

‘Within a week, the colony began to starve. The nurse ants killed and cannibalized the last of the larvae and pupae, their own baby nest mates, and regurgitated their liquid and tissue to other adults…

In the confusion that reigned through the night, the Trailhead Colony felt—it knew—that it was in extreme difficulty. It had no conception of defeat, but the nest interior was filled with the odor of alarm and recruitment pheromones released by both sides during the attempted Streamsider break-in. The fighters were contaminated by the alien odor of the invaders. They could see the battle flags of the enemy, so to speak; they could hear the continuous shriek of alarms.’

From the beginning of the story we understand the colony is doomed, but the ants continue to pursue survival, even coronating queens whose eggs are unfertilised. Why did Wilson choose to publish a story about a tenacious, ingenious struggle to survive that never has any possibility of success? We expect to read about another species’ life, but he also shows us death.

The process of life and death in the story is entirely natural, but Wilson's choice of focus may be no surprise given his powerful account of the current mass extinction caused by human activity in The Future of Life. Interestingly, Wilson's language becomes most anthropocentric in discussing the superorganism’s collapse:

‘Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants. The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city. Their unity of purpose was gone, their social machinery halted. No foraging, no cleaning and feeding of larvae, no queen for them to rally around. The order of the colony was dissolving. Out there, indomitable and waiting, were the hated, filthy, unformicid Streamsiders. Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice—they could fight or run from the horror.’

At the risk of reckless misreading, his thought-provoking story might not look out of place over on the Dark Mountain website.

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