Monday, June 6, 2011

The Ant Point of View by Drew Bell

The Anthill Chronicles section of the book is unusual in that it is written from the point of view of the ants. Wilson has done this to accomplish several tasks, and I would like to take the next several posts examining those different reasons.
When we study animal behavior, one of the things we must do is try to put ourselves in the mind of the creature we are studying. If the animal we are studying is one of the higher vertebrates, for example a wolf, this may be easier because it shares more in common with our own mentality and means of perceiving the environment. However, if the animal we are studying is very different from us, for example an ant, its psychology and sensory perceptions will be alien to us. This can be a challenge for the researcher, as we may have difficulty understanding the motivations that drive the animal.
How did you feel about seeing things from the ant perspective? Did you find the point of view alien? Has your understanding of the motivations of the ant changed? What similarities and differences are there compared to humans?


Harper said...

An influencial book for me during my early college days was "A Feeling for the Organism" by Barbara McClintock. It's been a long time, but I recall that she tried to see things from the point of view of the organism (in her case, corn). Perhaps some scientists find this an un-scientific way to approach understanding different species, but I think it can be a key to empathy and could lead to creative conservation approaches. For this reason, I appreciate reading from the ant's perspective. I believe that conservation is a blend of unbiased scientific method and empathy.. and you have to spend some time down at the ant's level to really SEE.

Heather said...

I tend to think in analogies. So I had a thought that there could be a comparison made between the super-ant colony that came in consuming everything and human beings. I thought of the original ant colonies as the more balanced lifecycle that we see in nature. I thought there was a message as the supercolony (ie. humans) devoured all its resources and was eventually exterminated, allowing for the third colony to take over despite its initially comparatively weak status to the other ant colonies. So I didn't think of it as alien necessarily, but as EO Wilson demonstrating how we are all part of the natural cycle, from ants to humans. And we may find that out the hard way if we don't learn to integrate ourselves within the cycle. I'll also add, that I look at the ants in my gardens much differently now :)

Anonymous said...

I found the ant perspective to be more familiar than I was expecting. Everything was written in a way that seemed personal, and it had a dramatic factor as well (especially during the battle chapter). Very impressive critters!

Magdalena said...

Hi Dr. Bell. Personally, I can remember following trails of ants back to their hills in my back yard. It was amazing to see how they could live in the cracks in the pavement of my driveway.

Magdalena said...

I think that ants seem to have an instinctual drive to act in certain ways. Similiarly, people too have those kinds of drives too when it comes to things like securing food, but we also have a superior thinking process which differs from that of ants. People tend to focus more on the decisions they make and can control and don't often think about what kind of natural driving forces are acting on them.

Margaret said...

Dr. Bell, I am curious whether you see a parallel between the social networking of ants and mutually aggressive humans who work at cross purposed to eachother and the idea of the formation of supercolonies. My understanding is that supercolonies are ultimately self-destructive.

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite finished with the section yet, but I am really enjoying it. To me, this change of perspective in the narrative is cleverly done. It is the part I have taken most fascination with. I knew a little about ant social structure - but this has expanded my understanding a lot. I have found myself talking about ants to friends all week!

The introduction of the supercolony is where the analogy crystalized for me. I immediately imagined the networks of major city night lights.

Has this ant mutation truly occurred in nature before?

Drew said...

I have been reading through the comments that you have been leaving and you have all been coming up with some great thoughts and observations! Several of you have brought up points that are well worth picking up in the upcoming posts.

I would like to take the chance at responding to each of your comments now though.

Harper, you mentioned that some scientists might think this approach is unscientific. You have actually hit upon an important caveat for animal behaviorists. We always have to be cautious that when we put ourselves into the mindset of the organism we are studying that we don't overdo it. There is a real danger that in anthropomorphizing our study organism that we might over- or misinterpret the true motivations behind the organism. Which relates directly to something that...

Magdalena said ants and humans both have driving instincts behind their actions, but humans have conscious thought that allows us to make decisions about how we react to our instinctual drives. This is an important difference between humans and ants. I am curious what each of you think about the notion that we don't always think about the role of our instincts when we make decisions or take action.

Heather, I tend to think in analogies also! I think that you have picked up on several themes and points about natural cycles and the human role in them that Wilson is trying to make.

Margaret, I see many parallels between ant and human behavior when it comes to aggression, whether it is at the individual, colonial or supercolonial level. Indeed, some of the mathematical models my lab has derived for ants have similar applications to humans. It is shocking the parallels in our behavior - such as self-destructiveness! E. O. Wilson himself has made two comments that are applicable here. First, he once stated that there isn't a single activity that humans participate in that ants didn't already discover first. (He went on to give examples about war, slavery, farming and even sewing.) Second, he also once stated, half tongue-in-cheek, that if ants had access to nuclear weapons the earth would be destroyed in two weeks.

Jared, you asked whether supercolonial "mutations" have truly occurred. The short answer is yes, several times. I have a longer answer though, because I did my graduate thesis on supercolonial formation in a particular species of ant. Ant colonies distinguish one another on the basis of scent, which in ants has a genetic component. Unrelated colonies have different genetics, and therefore different scents. If two ants smell the same, they treat each other as nestmates, otherwise as enemies. What can happen in supercolonialism isn't exactly a mutation in the strict sense of the word, but rather what happens is genetic bottle-necking, sort of an extreme inbreeding. Essentially what happens is that the ants lose enough genetic diversity that different colonies are so similar genetically that they start to smell the same to each other. Then what occurs is the line between colonies blurs and the colonies blend together into a single supercolony. Margaret is correct in pointing out that supercolonies are ultimately self-destructive. Supercolonies are not what biologists refer to as a long-term stable strategy. Although in the short run supercolonies may be good at out competing for resources, once the supercolony gains dominance it can strip the environment of resources. More importantly, supercolonies can never be long-lived because as soon as a portion of the supercolony gains adequate genetic difference that it smells different, the supercolony breaks down into separate competing colonial units and destroys itself from within. Such regain of genetic difference is inevitable because of the baseline rate of mutation we find in all genes.

Finally, Michael, I could not agree with you more that ants are impressive critters. I think that is why Wilson and I study them - they are just so darn fascinating!

Anne Post said...

Drew, I was curious about your thoughts on the "marriage" of storytelling and science...that a good yarn can not only convey scientifc concepts more effectively but also "make the esoteric understandable and the familiar fascinating" [see the World Science Festivalwebsite]. Spinning stories can keep exploration alive and open-ended dialogue dynamic and publically accessible. I am fascinated by what I think of as the social life of information and if storytelling is integral to our knowledge sharing then I think E.O. Wilson's choice at the age of 85 to write a story is a brilliant one - I think the "Ant Chronicles" portion of the book is a brilliant integration of storytelling and science.

Drew said...

Anne, you have brought up a topic that has been near and dear to me for some time! It is well worth exploring as its own post - perhaps a post later this evening (to give the morning post a chance to grow) or as a post tomorrow morning. Stay tuned...

Cindy Samples said...

I loved seeing things from the ant perspective it reminded me of how I speak about my refuge and the wildlife. I try to convey the struggles and success these critters must go through to survive. What still sticks with me though is a situation that happened after I had finished the chapter when the "humans" poisoned the anthill and annihilated the anthill population of the super colongy. My neighbor called me over and asked if I could identify a den she had in her backyard. As I walked with her she commented, "We poured rat poisoing down it so I think we were able to kill it." I realized I live in my own Nokobee and it is worth saving.

Drew said...

Cindy, I think we all live in a Nokobee. Over and over again I have run into people with an attitude like your neighbor - and each time it stuns me. I am always saddened by the common human trait of "biophobia." It seems that we have such a great fear of other living things, especially if they are different or unknown to us. Isn't it frightening that the first reaction is often "Kill It," even if the It is unknown. Kill first - identify later. It manifests in many ways, from the poisoning of the animal in the den to the merciless squishing of any insect that dares enter the house. I always try to use such situations as a teachable moment. I always try to keep in mind my Franciscan training and remember that all living things are children of God and therefore my brothers and sisters.

Kerrick said...

In the prologue of the novel, the first paragraph speaks of parallel worlds rising together, falling, and rising again all within the same time and space. Each one differs so greatly in magnitude that one hardly notices another.
I have often sat and pondered what existence would be like from such a different perspective. The forest, as calm and serene as it may seem, is a raging battlefield in competition for limited resources. Trees stretch for light, pushing out their neighbors, while invasive vines scamper up their trunks to choke them. Insects wage miniature wars among cracks and crevices. They rise, they fall, and they rise again.
I found The Anthill Chronicles to be a fascinating and entertaining read. Wilson has effectively whittled the scientific tome of The Ants down into gems that reach a wider audience. While reading, my mind drew parallels between human society and the ant colony. The writings convey a concept of humans as a supercolony without barriers, how species without genes that prescribe robust growth “shrink before the expanding Darwinian winners [humans], and disappear.” It is humbling to consider that we as humans are making the same environmentally straining mistakes as an organism with only one pair of chromosomes. Then again, we do have less genetic material than a potato.
Either from rooftops of tall buildings, windows of aircraft, or Google maps with satellite view activated, when I look at this planet I see a spherical petri dish blooming with various interwoven organisms. But, as philosophers discovered long ago, the only perspective on which I perceive this world is as a human. The only way I understand the perspective of other organisms is through anatomy. Wilson artfully crafts a perspective of what a human would see from an ant’s perspective. If he wanted to give us a genuine ant experience, we would be sniffing and licking the pages instead of reading them

Jesse Furrow said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the Anthill Chronicles. I think it could stand on its own as a short book and readers would still be able to draw their own conclusions as to how ants lives compare to the human experience. At times I felt as though I was reading a sci-fi novel. Perhaps a movie adaptation is in order! I see though how it can be tricky to not lend too much human perspective to the cast of characters. I wondered at times how it was possible to know so intimately the inner workings of such tiny creatures without some speculation - but I haven't spent my life studying ants so I can't say. Sorry for the late post.

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