Science. Communication. Community.
In a week when the Boy Scouts of America are yet again under intense scrutiny, I’m reminded of the surprisingly heroic role they play in E.O. Wilson’s first novel, Anthill.
I know what you’re thinking. Who sets out to raise an eloquent entomologist these days? I suppose you’re right. But more broadly speaking, we’re dying to know why some kids “see science as something that affects their life,” to quote yesterday’s New York Times. I didn’t expect to find an answer in Wilson’s first novel, Anthill, but there it was.
Anthill is the story of a young boy in Southern Alabama, Raphael (Raff) Cody, slowly finding his way to entomology, despite living in a world where only legal or military careers count. Ironically, the book’s best section recounts Raff’s dissertation in riveting prose. But working in fiction does allow Wilson to portray the forces that shape Raff early on.
At age ten, Raff has an excruciating first hunting trip. As his father hands him a gun, his mind explodes with apprehension, “Violence… killing animals as big as the family dog. Blood all over the place, smashed heads. No sir, no sir, please, no sir.” He refuses to shoot the gun. (This episode, btw, is eerily similar to an Alabama hunting story on The Moth.)
Raff’s trip sets the stage for his later joy at joining the Boy Scouts, where he’s encouraged to pursue all manner of nonviolent, outdoorsy badges including “lifesaving” and entomology. In case we missed the point, the narrator explains, “The Boy Scouts… legitimized the life for which Raff had been unconsciously preparing himself. They bestowed a spiritual and a social blessing upon the wildness of Lake Nokobee.”
E.O. Wilson has spoken before of his devotion to the Boy Scouts. Here, he illustrates what a rare lifeline the Scouts can provide would-be scientists. This week, as the Scouts grapple with their unwillingness to welcome gays, it’s heartening to realize they’ve long provided a haven for some kids who felt like they didn’t fit in.