Wednesday, February 1, 1995

Q&A Edward O. Wilson: Aliens


First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

Q&A Edward O. Wilson: Aliens

Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a plant stalk mattered. The naturalist’s trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening.
   Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

HB: You have built a career as a scientist but at least your more recent books have brought you considerable recognition as a writer, and it’s been a pleasure to read and get to know your work.

EW: Thank you. Since the age of seventeen I’ve been serious about entomology and doing research. For nearly fifty years the center of my life was science. Gradually, because of my taste for synthesis and an ability to write smoothly, I find myself moving into the literary realm and look on it as an important activity for the future.

HB: It’s clear from the kind of quotes you select for Naturalist you have a taste for the subject.

EW: Is it due to the fact that I’m a Southerner?

HB: Is it?

EW: Might be. There seems to be something more of a tradition for autonomous, autochthonous -- originating in situ without too much outside influence -- literary effort among Southerners. The South seems to cultivate an unusual appreciation for writers in its midst, compared to what else it appreciates, which is mostly military and commerce, such that young people in the South can legitimately aspire to be writers. In terms of population, the South seems to have produced more than its share of well-known writers, editors, and journalists. It may be something cultural though I’ve never tried to examine it by a systematic comparison with other parts of the country.

I do love the written word. I love the well-crafted phrase, the startling metaphor which you respond to by saying, yes, that’s got to be just right, and, yes, it’s possible there is no better metaphor for it. That’s what you look for as a writer.

HB: Whether or not the Southern hypothesis is correct, you’re probably the only Southerner who came to literature by way of myrmecology.

EW: That’s for sure. I’m probably the only one to come to literature by way of science.

HB: You bring to mind other scientists-writers who it would not be fair to call popularizers -- they do something beyond popularizing. I’m thinking of someone like Lewis Thomas, for example. They are not merely making science more accessible. It’s more fundamental than that.

EW: That’s correct. The transition from science popularization to scientific literature in the sense of emphasis on literature in addition to science is a very difficult one. Let us examine what it entails.

It entails knowing the science, preferably from the inside, as one who’s had hands on experience and a history of participation with collaborators, colleagues, rivals over time, and therefore understands, in addition, to the knowledge itself, how it was obtained, and the social structure within which it was obtained. This is step one.

HB: Necessary but not sufficient.

EW: Yes. It’s the old standard of doing literature -- knowing what you’re talking about, having lived it as opposed to having grown interested in it by reading about it in class or getting to know and accompany scientists over a period of time. Excellent science writing has been done this way but I would suggest it is not likely to produce what we might call literature, scientific literature, science transformed into literature. Hands on experience, reporting out of direct involvement, is crucial, as it is crucial for any good literature, any literature that is lived and felt.

The second prerequisite in writing the literature of science -- I’m actually talking a bit off the top of my head because I’ve never tried to articulate this before -- is that you explain what you perceive to be the truth -- consensually the truth within the culture of science -- in language that could be understood by a broad audience. And that is not easy. It entails a lot of simplification; it also entails a lot of corner-cutting. For scientific explication to become substantially an art, you need to know just exactly what examples to present. You need to know how to say something that is easily grasped intuitively but does not distort the truth. The best scientific writer has to rely on what Picasso called art, namely the lie that helps us to see the truth.

And the third element of the literature of science is metaphor, science as a source of metaphor for the culture as a whole. Of course, we are loaded with metaphor, we use it all the time. But to draw forth from the culture of science exact and original metaphors is an art that is very inviting to the scientist who aspires to do literature.

HB: You write in Naturalist , "A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder."

That seems to name the point of departure for both paths, for science, perhaps, and also for various kinds of literature. You began at that node as a scientist and you return to it, you summon it up, in Naturalist, as a writer. In Return to the Ants the material itself is so startling and compelling and becomes such a sort of curious metaphor in and of itself all you have to do is present it clearly.

EW: That’s right.

HB: The ants do it for you. You have to have a faith that what the ants do is of interest to more than the myrmecologist.

EW: You have to have sufficient faith and enthusiasm that you can convey that.

Then there’s such a thing as a command metaphor. It becomes the theme of the investigation, or at least the theme of how you are going to present a large part of the fascination you feel with the subject. The first one you mentioned, "deep water," is a command metaphor, the metaphor of the unknown, especially the unknown that is immediately at hand. Deep water is not a metaphor like, say, the upper Amazon, the summit of Everest or the surface of Mars. It’s not a distant place you aspire to go to eventually after great effort and enterprise. Deep water is something close at hand that very much represents the history of life -- some of the menace, some of the promise.

HB: You were looking at deep water after a huge ray had passed right beneath your feet dangling off the pier.

EW: I’m a little child, six years old. It’s summer and I’m pretty much allowed to run back and forth alone, a little beachcomber. Fortunately, I’d learned to swim, so my folks didn’t have to worry about me too much. I’m seeing all sorts of things I’d never been informed about, and out of the deep water of Perdido Sound comes this incredible jelly fish, a sea anemone, which I examine closely. Where does it come from? Where’s it going to go? What does it need? What does it do?

A child’s mind is completely open, it hasn’t been instructed in any of this. And then a huge ray glides under my feet at dusk. Where does that come from? What else is out there? What can we find?

The imagery of the ocean, of unlimited frontier, full of mystery, its depths unknown, becomes central in the development of a young naturalist. The concentration on life is paramount in the experience I had.

As for the ants, you’re quite right in saying that they sell themselves. You don’t go up to an ant colony and have those profound stirrings you might on the edge of the sea, especially as a young person.

The command metaphor here is social life, social life as it might have developed on another planet. The ants are the extreme form of evolutionary development of a line that separated from ours roughly half a billion years ago. One line, through a long tortuous evolutionary history, led to vertebrates, primates, and finally human beings with our wholly distinctive form of social organization.

Another line of evolution led through its own peculiar routes to social insects. Ants are so different from us in size, the way they communicate, the whole method of organization, that they are the closest we will ever come to social life as it might have evolved on another planet. We don’t have to wait a thousand years to land on a planet circling Arcturus to wonder at social forms so different from our own; they exist right here.

HB: It’s impossible to read Journey to the Ants without becoming gripped by the notion of ants as both similar to us, in that they are social, and at the same time as dissimilar us as it’s imaginable to be. There’s the wonderful story, for example, about the dead pile -- the ant that smells like a dead ant because you’ve sprayed it with oleic acid. It walks around, works, wants to get on with being an ant but the other ants won’t let it. It’s the dead pile for that ant unless it stops smelling like it’s dead.

EW: If you smell like a corpse you are a corpse.

HB: Conversely, fat beetles that bear no visual resemblance to ants at all manage to pick up what you call the "olfactory Gestalt" of the colony. This is the skeleton key. Now they get free run of the place, including unlimited rights to the food supply.

This emphasis on smell -- what you refer to as the ant’s "commitment to olfaction" -- is fascinating. You write about what it takes for evolution to arrive at a brain big enough to accommodate not only smell but vision and hearing.

EW: Sufficient redundancy to identify an alien -- that’s really what we’re talking about. The human brain is big enough to process not just one narrow stream of information such as smell, and in the case of ants, a simple smell at that, a discrimination among certain chemicals. We do that and vastly more; we add on probably one hundred dimensions of information to distinguish another human being. The extraordinary difficulty of duplicating a human being well enough to deceive other humans, the creation of androids, is of course a very important theme of current science fiction culture. Consider Bladerunner, consider Terminator.

HB: Consider The Alien.

EW: It’s a source of endless fascination to ask, what does it take to really duplicate enough of a human being?

Ants can be easily fooled because they don’t have all that redundant information; they don’t rely on exact tone of voice, they don’t rely on paralinguistic signaling, they don’t care if they guy they’re talking to knows who the coach of the Patriots is, they don’t watch the way you walk.

HB: So, at bottom, extra senses are a matter of establishing redundancy.

EW: That’s what it is. And there is some point at which, if you were building an android, it would be indistinguishable to you in an ordinary conversation like the one we’re having and yet would still be absent a great many human qualities that would become apparent only after you’d examined this entity for a very long period of time.

The ants simply are willing to stop -- well, their brains are just too small for anything else -- at checking for the right smell, the right combination of chemicals. Describing the beetles who fool the ants and pillage the colony, my predecessor at Harvard, William Morton Wheeler, put it this way: "it is as though a human family were to invite gigantic lobsters, midget tortoises, and similar monsters to dinner, and never notice the difference."

HB: So the majority of creatures don’t have the brain space for the luxury of vision and hearing.

EW: The vast majority.

HB: Reading Journey to the Ants, it occurred to me that we carry a kind of sense chauvinism into our art. If you think about it, the senses we privilege in art are big brain senses -- sight and hearing. If it smells, it’s pretty much guaranteed not to be art, not in the grand sense. If you taste it, it’s not art. We create a cut-off that underscores the big brain capacity.

EW: That’s a very good point. We have a tiny vocabulary to describe odors, taste or touch.

HB: Though those senses are crucial to our lives we don’t throw a lot of language at them.

EW: But we didn’t build our semantic way of thinking on any of them, as we did with words, auditory information. The entire parietal lobe of the brain changed in order to process information, such as visual information, and translate it into words. That’s the evolutionary road we chose. That’s why we are in a world of words with images following close behind them.

I once wrote an essay called "Comparative Sociology," the idea being to show just how distinctive human beings are. I imagined what life would be like, or what an advanced form of intelligent life would be like if it had been done with termites, say, giant termites, that had evolved up to a very high social level and would be communicating with smell.

Thirty years ago a colleague and I worked out a theory of communication by pheromones, that is by taste and smell, to see what it would take to develop a fairly large vocabulary. When you try to get your mind around what such a language would be -- and it is conceivable -- it is genuinely boggling because we are so audio-visual. But it could be done by using varieties of chemicals which are emitted at very close quarters as waves, chemical waves with different amplitudes, the way sound is emitted. You would need super-sensitive detectors. Maybe a substantial part of the body would have to be devoted to these detectors.

HB: External taste buds.

EW: You’d be talking back and forth with different substances emitted at different wavelengths.

HB: In order for it to be language it would have to be self-reflective, so you’d have to have chemicals that talk about chemicals.

EW: Instead of reflecting in words, the parietal part of the brain would have to talk to itself in coded messages.

HB: That seems like a lot more work than doing it through synapses and electricity.

EW: Well, you’d probably have synapses and electric signals but now, on the whole, coding would be directed toward the chemical sense, both externally and internally.

When you reflect on this you realize that when we talk about aliens, we haven’t even begun to imagine how different their minds and societies would be. The closest approach we might have on this earth, to come back to our command metaphor, would be the ants, and even they probably are nowhere close to what would be developed in an advanced pheromone-communicating mind.

HB: A species, for instance, that dreams in unimaginable complexities of taste and smell.

EW: I don’t read science fiction but I enjoy the occasional science fiction movie and I don’t believe the writers of science fiction have even begun to imagine what the real possibilities are in the universe.

HB: It reminds a little of Borges, who does posit imaginary animals, including one so dull it kills prey by boring it to death.

EW: Given that there are somewhere between ten million and one hundred million organisms out there, and given that, to this point, we have only discovered about one and a half million even to the extent of giving them a name, I would propose that almost any form of adaptation, or the great majority of forms of adaptation that you could imagine that haven’t been discovered, will be discovered. Nature has filled a lot of niches that still make life on earth -- never mind on planets around Arcturus -- infinitely interesting.

HB: I want to go back to what you said about intending to devote yourself more to literature. You said it was important. Why that word, why is it important?

EW: The project I’m beginning to work on -- I continue research on ants, because I enjoy it so much but also as a personal research contribution to the biodiversity effort -- the major project I’m working on now is a synthesis of biology, social science, environment, and ethics. I know that sounds absurdly ambitious but maybe not. I believe that the intersection between those areas is a site for very important scholarly exploration. I recognize that when you enter that area between biology and the social sciences, and between environment and the social sciences, and between environment and ethics, you are engaged in an activity that cannot be dealt with by flat prose.

If you’re going to address issues with vivid enough language to invest them with human feeling, which is what a lot of social science and ethics is about, then you have to make an additional literary effort. That’s one reason I’m trying to put all these elements together in my mind, and part of the reason why I want to go on with literature. Besides, literature is a creative activity that’s enormously pleasing. The act of writing is enormously satisfying. I don’t know why I didn’t get into it sooner. I wrote relatively flat prose in the scientific manner most of my career. I came to literary effort only late.

HB: In Biophilia you wrote: "The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime. As the cerebral cortex grew from apish dimensions through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, it was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation. The mind therefore specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery."

Analogy and metaphor -- you are giving the delivery systems of literature an evolutionary basis.

EW: I’ve begun to do that increasingly and deliberately. In Biophilia take note, for example, of the very brief chapter entitled "Bird of Paradise," where I take you on a trek up the mountains of New Guinea and present the bird of paradise, one of the most beautiful birds in the world, first as an object of scientific research. We dissect it, we study it down to how the colors come into existence and how the nerve system works, and then we come back to a synthesis in which we pull away and see the bird as a whole again. The bird of paradise in the distant rain forest is reassembled and we experience the poet’s reaction to it. And that’s extremely valid, except that now the poet is informed with a much more exact knowledge of what the bird of paradise is, and has a vastly wider range of experience and metaphor to draw from.

HB: Likewise the scientist no longer has to separate his own work from the perceptions of the poet.

EW: Precisely. The scientist can go on. It doesn’t degrade the poet or poetry one iota, and in fact elevates them by considering how the poetic mind works and why it works that way in the evolutionary scenario. 

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