Thursday, May 29, 2014

As strange a maze as e'er men trod...


(This post originally appeared in April 2009.)

Well, I'm back in my corner of the library surrounded by more books than I could read in a lifetime, and that's just the ones that arrived while I was away. And the first one of those I sought was Bert Holldoblet and E. O. Wilson's The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. Like its bigger, more expensive daddy, The Ants, it is a hefty read, and not cheap, but it is a different sort of read, less encyclopedic, more "Wow!" It is the kind of book one keeps beside the easy chair and devours in snatches with quiet delight. Like its subjects, it is beautiful, elegant and strange.

Ants are endlessly interesting, with their queens and kings, their castes, their farmers and herders, their armies, their construction workers, their languages of pheromones, strokings, wags and wiggles. Even after a first quick perusal, I sat in my chair for twenty minutes just shaking my head with wonder. Like the social insects and the book, the world is beautiful, elegant and -- breathtakingly strange.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder's eye (and brain) is a product of the world and evolved to maximize the fitness of the organism to its environment. Elegance? The physicist knows what that is; a criteria by which she evaluates the fitness of theories. And strange? Ah, now we come to the crux of the religious naturalist's faith -- the overwhelming sense that there is something afoot in the commonplace that eludes, perhaps, forever, our most intense study. Something beyond beauty, beyond elegance, beyond description, unspoken and unspeakable -- a "business more than nature was ever conduct of." That strangeness exudes itself from every page of Holldober and Wilson's book.

Ed Wilson is one of the greatest thinkers and science popularizers of our time. He is also a kind and gentle man who, like his predecessor Thomas Huxley, evolved a reverent agnosticism and never ceases to delight in the beauty, elegance and strangeness of the world. Late in life Huxley wrote: "The cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner -- and if I had as many lives as a cat I would leave no corner unexplored." Wilson, I think, would agree.