Friday, January 22, 2010

Stranger than fiction

The fiction section of the New Yorker this week has a piece by E. O. Wilson, who apparently has a novel coming out. The story "Trailhead" is about ants, Wilson's great passion, but really about the "superorganism" which each ant colony is. It's a pretty didactic piece of writing, perhaps necessarily so, explaining how a virgin queen gets impregnated, starts a colony, lays eggs a few at a time, each of the first generations taking on a different role in the emerging colony, and how the colony thrives through various kinds of entirely altruistic behavior and, eventually, when the queen dies, slowly collapses, stormed by a younger colony. It has a cast of thousands, who communicate with smells and gestures, but none knows what stage of the story it's at. The sense of drama - a problem, trouble - is introduced by starting the with the death of the queen, something none of her attendants is equipped to notice at first. Eventually things fall apart and Lamentation and hope were mingled in the population, until it becomes clear that all is lost: Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice—they could fight or run from the horror. There was nothing else left in their collective mind.It is a good yarn, if more Herodotus than Sophocles. What does it mean to put it in the fiction section? We're given to understand that this is the story not just of the trailhead colony but of any and every ant colony. They have no more varied personalities than their constituent populations. The quick (probably kneejerk) human reaction is to say that there couldn't be literature about a superorganism. But that may be just what Wilson and the fiction editors want me to think, and then rethink. The point can't be that human societies are sort of superorganisms, too - Wilson wouldn't want us to conclude that, especially not as a mere metaphor. As social animals we're more interconnected and consilient than we want to admit, but a superorganism we're not and never have been. Is the point that we, as social but not part of a superorganism, have the peculiar fate to have the sorts of lives which literature articulates - and perhaps need literature to articulate it? Something in between perhaps. In Consilience, Wilson suggested that there's a limited repertoire of story templates for all our myth and literature, selected by evolution, which can be elaborated on but never successfully transcended. The difference is between repertoires, not between species with a fixed repertoire and others without one.

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