Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Member Review of NATURALIST by E.O. Wilson

PVNWG Member Joy Pardue wrote the following review of our May 2010 book selection, E.O. Wilson's autobiography, Naturalist.

Does having a great story to tell make one a great storyteller? Or vice versa? In Naturalist we receive both as E O Wilson, PhD (henceforth referred to as E O) reveals the experiences that shaped the course of his life and led to his becoming the world authority on myrmecology. As he seems to do when he tackles any task, E O approaches it thoughtfully, methodically and whole-heartedly. Is it any wonder that his fascination with ants – of all creatures – enlarged his vision of the world. While scrutinizing just about every aspect of these tiny creatures E O developed powerful insights and controversial theories about humanity and life in general and, in the process, evolves into a dedicated naturalist and champion of Planet Earth.
In this autobiography, E O reveals himself as complex, multi-faceted individual. In reading his book I discovered a curious young boy, a serious student, an intrepid adventurer, a loving husband, a devoted father, a rigorous researcher, an exacting entomologist, a venerated professor, an astute observer of human beings, a relentless truth-seeker, an independent thinker and a wise philosopher.
E O uses none of these simple, complimentary terms to portray himself but, in the telling of his remarkable journey, he reveals all these attributes and more. Along the way he makes candid references to himself, using precise phrases such as “a child workaholic…congenital synthesizer…proud, scientific materialist…inveterate encyclopedist…environmental activist….” Tossing out words that even spell check doesn’t recognize.
All of the above descriptions ‘fit’ and give us insight as to how a scrawny kid who entertained himself with ‘bugs’, amphibians, reptiles and other creepy crawly varmints and approached the natural world with a keen curiosity and a vivid imagination stepped upon a pathway that led from the rural south to international recognition. One wonders whether he stepped onto or created that pathway.
Taking a cursory glimpse of his early life, many might describe E O as coming from a “dysfunctional family, a broken home…with a shiftless alcoholic father. Early on, it seems, neither parent provided much stability though his mother became more involved during his teenage years.
But that isn’t E O’s version. Not once does he whine or berate his family, his parent’s lifestyle or his circumstances. As he matured, he was surely aware of his parent’s shortcomings. However, in this remembrance of them, he chooses to highlight their strengths. His tribute to his father (p 126-127) is generous, kind and loving. Though E O expresses a measure of relief at his father’s exit from his life, his summary of the father-son relationship is compassionate: “No son knows his father well enough to matter till it’s too late.”
Wherever his family landed, E O routinely sought out the surrounding natural environment and usually managed to find at least one friend who shared his interests. Thus began another adventure! Surely, E O himself appreciates this pattern for what it was: Adaptation…in the service of survival! Also contributing to his success is his ability to see the world as a “magic kingdom”. Perhaps he wouldn’t have used this fine phrase when he began exploring southern ecosystems and discovering a world of wild wonders but his decision to entitle a chapter of his book as suggests that he continues to think of our planet as a Magic Kingdom. Seems he can’t get enough of Nature nor can he do enough to promote and protect it.
It is surprising to learn that he had a stint in the Gulf Coast Military Academy and hard to imagine he thrived there. How could a skinny, free-spirited lad adjust to life in a restricted, no-nonsense regime of a military academy? Probably by then he was as ‘disciplined’ as most of the other students and perhaps more than some of the faculty. E O portrays yet another life experience that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ him in a positive light. E O’s narrative about his encounter with a water moccasin is so vivid as to be frightening. Reading his detailed portrayal of this viper, its attitude and the horrific struggle between the two of them was like having a ring-side seat. It’s a relief when E O finally rids himself of the monster and you know he is safe. From the snake’s point of view, this was a life and death struggle. Essentially, E Owas in the same predicament at that moment. Knowing a bite from that snake could be lethal is why this anecdote haunts me. Luckily, for E O and the world at large, he survived this particular adventure. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a five-pound tome on ANTS. Nor would the Encyclopedia of Life be as far along as it is today. Perhaps it would never have been started.
Later (p 150) E O comments “In the natural world, beautiful usually means deadly. Beautiful plus a casual demeanor always means deadly.” Of course, E O did not have this wisdom at the time he “was thrilled at the sight” of this huge cottonmouth or he might not have concluded that it “looked as though it could be captured.” In retrospect, his insights about “deadly” were on the mark when he described : “Although no emotion can be read in the frozen half-smile and staring yellow eyes, their reactions and postures give them an insolent air, as if they see their power reflected in the caution of human beings and other sizable animals.”
How many astute observations we find in this autobiography!
~ “….most adults…cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the innate savagery of preadolescent boys.” What a surprise to learn that E O was once a ‘pugilist’ which he apparently considers a normal phase of development.
~ “…the greater lesson of history are not solved: they are merely forgotten.”
~”This observation on the human condition…both altogether banal and eternally astonishing.”
E O consistently gives credit as well as generous praise for those exceptional students and colleagues he meets along the way. Having a healthy self-confidence E O isn’t threatened by other bright or talented scientists – many of whom were/are superstars as well. On the contrary, his tendency is to nurture, mentor and, when their interests meshed, collaborate with those who uphold the standard of excellence.
E O’s autobiography seems scrupulously honest and straightforward. And he seemingly tells it all - trials and triumphs…successes…squabbles….
Chapter 15 – ‘The Sociobiology Controversy” – is among my favorites. This is his account of the brouhaha that ensued after he published Sociobiology. Two decades later E O dispassionately reports the good, the bad and the ugly. Seems there was plenty of drama at the time and it must have been painful to E O on many levels. Not the least of which would have been his Chairmen’s harsh criticism and vicious attacks in the press. Dr. L determined E O’s theory was “politically dangerous” and his letter was an attempt to discredit a well-respected colleague.
Yet this fellow scientist didn’t bother to seek out E O (whose office was just above his) and discuss the controversy and their differing opinions as scientists are wont to do. In addition, E O felt shunned by his colleagues who offered no support; probably figuring it was better to keep a low profile, they remained silent. E O is honest enough to admit that he began to wonder if indeed he was “ a poor scientist and a social blunderer to boot.”
E O’s in-depth analysis of the chairman’s personality and modus operandi isn’t flattering but isn’t malicious either. As he does consistently in this autobiography, E O carefully assembles and analyzes the facts to explain clearly what has occurred. In this case, he seems compelled to describe his challenger to make sense of how and why the storm arose.
E O’s responses to this situation are impressive: he coolly analyzed what had transpired whereupon he went through several stages from anxiety to anger to ambition to opportunity! He’d identified the ‘adversary’ and couldn’t resist meeting it head on. Mostly, I think, because it mean learning about something entirely new. As he acknowledged somewhere in the book he had an insatiable “hunger to search for data and know….”
In the closing chapter E O comments “I will be an explorer naturalist until I die.” While re-reading that chapter I took a closer look at his definition of biophilia, a term he coined in 1979 which means “the inborn affinity human beings have for other forms of life, an affiliation evoked, according to circumstance, by pleasure, or a sense of security, or awe, or even fascination blended with revulsion. Could there be a more fitting summary of this great naturalist!!! Let’s add “biophiliac” to our long list of attributes. But the one comprehensive term that describes this remarkable man best is “Earthling Extraordinaire”.