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The Ants
EO Wilson Scientist
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For some 20 years my very close colleague, Bert Hölldobler, and I worked here at Harvard on part of the huge variety of ants, doing basic studies on the communication and caste systems and general behaviour of one fascinating species after another which we collected in the field and kept here in the lab. We just had a zoo, a bestiary of some of the strangest ants in the world, some of the least studied. And we also studied them together on a couple of brief field trips in the tropics when we gathered these up.

It was a wonderful 20 years before Bert finally decided, or he was lured back, shall I say, to Germany, his native country, with a professorship and a million dollar grant from... at the University of Würzburg. And so he went back and started his own institute with a lot more money and a lot more assistance to help him, that he ever could have gotten in this country. At Harvard or anywhere else. So as he was preparing to leave we started talking about maybe summing up what we had done together, working on ants, we'd turned out large numbers of papers. Some he'd... a large number he turned out on his own, on his own research, the same for me, and just on myself. But quite a few we'd worked on together. And we talked about ants day in, day out, for a large part of that time. And so we agreed we'd write a book. First we thought we would write a little book about, you know, what we'd done together, the best kind of research that we did. And then one day, because I'm prone to do... make ridiculous decisions like this, I said, look Bert, here we are, 1988, you and I together know almost everything that's known about ants for all time. We've gathered all this material, we have all this library, we've been involved in almost all the basic research, doing it, assisting it, advising it and so on.

This was a unique moment in time. When again might two people, or even three or four, be able to put together everything known about a group like the ants? Furthermore it would be less likely as you go through time because of course the knowledge of groups like this keeps going up like this and makes it harder and harder to cover everything. So we said, good, before you take... before he takes off for Germany, we will do this. And we set out and wrote a book about everything known about ants. We went through thousands of books and articles. Of course a lot of it came out of our heads. And finally came up with The Ants. That's the book.

Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author (two Pulitzer Prizes). His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, Germany, University of Würzburg, The Ants, Bert Hölldobler

Duration: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 22 May 2018