Archive for the ‘Entophilosophy’ Category

“I suppose you are an entomologist?”
“Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name. No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.”

— From The Poet at the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
(H/T James C. Trager in the comments section over at Myrmecos)


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A recent paper by Sasaki and Pratt, published in Biology Letters last week, describes an elegant study that expands our understanding of ant decision-making. Their simple experimental design is shown in Figure 1 (taken from the paper):

Figure 1 Ant Decisions

The focus of their experiment was to determine if, when choosing which site to make a nest, ants shift the weights of attributes they consider as a result of previous experiences. Several past studies focusing on many different species have looked at the impact of weighting choices on decision-making, but this paper is, according to the authors, the first to document potential shifts in weighting multiple variables due to experiences. Specifically, Sasaki and Pratt looked at preferences for entrance size and light availability, because the ant species of interest, Temnothorax rugatulus, is known to prefer nests that have smaller entrance size and lower light availability.

What the researchers found was that when the ants were first exposed to only a standard (ideal) nest and another nest that varied in only one attribute (light or entrance size), the ants later exhibited a significant increase in preference for nest sites that were more desirable in that one attribute, but less desirable for the other. For example, the ants that were first made to choose between a standard nest and a nest with higher light availability consistently chose the standard, more ideal nest. Then, when presented with a choice between a nest that had a small entrance, but more light, and one that had less light, but a larger entrance, the ants chose the nest with more optimal light conditions at the expense of less ideal entrance size conditions. Revealingly, the ants that were first made to choose between a standard nest and one with a larger entrance size later chose the nest with the more optimal size conditions. Therefore, potentially due to the perception of rareness of one nest trait, the ants increased the weight of that trait when seeking out a new nest in the future. The results of this tight experiment seem to me to provide compelling evidence that ants somehow collectively use a decision-making process that incorporates past information to shift the weights of preference in later choices.

Perhaps the most interesting bit about the study is that the ants’ style of decision-making has also been documented in humans. As the authors note, past research has shown the influence of scarcity in social psychology, where people will more strongly seek out something that they perceive to be rare. Although the underlying mechanism used to incorporate scarcity into decisions may be different between ants and humans, it is interesting to consider that our mental processes may mirror those of the small creatures underfoot.

Sasaki, T. and S.C. Pratt. 2013. Ants learn to rely on more informative attributes during decision-making. Biology Letters 9: 20130667.

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Today, I found an article from 2010 that discusses this artwork:

Man kills 200,000 ants for artwork

What’s so special about it, you ask? Well, as reported by The Telegraph, this piece was made by artist Chris Trueman by killing 200,000 ants. I’ve discussed the ethics of killing ants before (see here and here), but regardless of one’ answer to the general question of the morality of killing insects, one of Trueman’s comments borders on depraved:

Mr. Trueman, from Claremont, California, admitted that putting the piece together had been a challenge.

He even stopped half way through the process because he had an attack of conscience after killing the ants.

He said: “It took several years, not because of the actual labour, but because at one point I started to feel bad about killing all of the ants and I stopped the project for over a year.

“Then I decided that the first ants would have died in vain if I didn’t finish the work so I decided to continue.”

So in other words, he felt bad for killing ants, but then decided to kill more ants to finish the thing he didn’t feel was worth killing ants for so that the ants he initially killed would still be used for that thing that he stopped killing ants for because he felt it wasn’t worth killing the ants for it.

However, although I find Trueman’s reasoning for his change of heart convoluted and kind of creepy, I personally think the picture is awesome. But this is coming from the guy that’s already killed tens of thousands of ants on a Kansas prairie to answer some questions for a small research project and who will likely generate a life-time anticide total in the millions. In any case, I think we can all agree on one conclusion of Trueman’s:

“Ants ride the line of what we consider intelligent life, if we see them in the kitchen, many of us think little of killing them all.

“If we take the time to look at them they are remarkable creatures.”

Whether in art or nature, ants are remarkable indeed.

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Myrmecos’ Alex Wild has an interesting recent post that has generated a correspondingly interesting discussion about whether or not the common name for Polyergus ants – “slave-raiding ants” – is acceptable. The commentary focuses on two main questions:

1) Is the slavery analogy apt, and does it have an equal or better alternative?


2) Does the analogy offend certain groups of people, particularly black Americans, thereby adding to the problem of under-representation of minorities in science?

While the first question is also intriguing, and is discussed thoroughly by others and me in the comments, I will instead focus on an implication of the second question.

First, a disclaimer: I am a white Jewish guy, and therefore my ancestors have not experienced slavery in the U.S. of the sort experienced all-too-recently by black Americans. Therefore, my brief comments should be taken with a healthy dose of (kosher?) salt.

Now, to the second question. What interests me about this is the idea that if the metaphor is in fact offensive to some, and discourages a certain group from joining science, then it should not be used, regardless of its precision. For example, in the original post, Alex Wild explains (emphasis mine):

While I still don’t like the piracy metaphor, I’ve come around to Herber’s perspective that the slave-raiding comparison, while apt, is not ideal for those of us trying to introduce myrmecology to its broadest possible audience.

The implication of this, and other similar claims, is problematic for one major reason. It suggests that science should become less precise (in other words less accurate, in other words less scientific) due to a misunderstanding among the general population. Take, for example, the case of genetics. I distinctly remember in an undergraduate class, a very intelligent professor moving outside of his area of expertise (Ancient Studies and Latin) to pontificate on why homosexuality just can’t be partially genetic, because, if it is, then people would try to ‘cure’ individuals who are gay, through things like gene therapy or genetic engineering (paraphrasing).  Now, I am not going to discuss this complex topic here. But the important point is that the science of the matter, i.e. the true answer of this scientific question, is not actually influenced at all by what bad actions others might do on the basis of the information. It’s a completely flawed way to address a question. Similarly, what words should be used to best describe a behavior, in a scientific context, should be determined by the meaning of the words, not the potential of those words to be taken out of context, read with bias, and used in a horrible manner. If the behavior of Polyergus ants most resembles slavery, then it’s a form of (ant) slavery. If it most resembles kidnapping (Wild’s proposed alternative), then it’s a form of (ant) kidnapping.

The under-representation of certain social groups is as much of an issue in science as it is in many other areas of society. However, changing the most accurate terminology to be less precise in order to incorporate those groups is only undermining the field that so desperately needs diversification of involvement. There are many good ways to work social change. In science, pandering to biases is not one of them.

UPDATE: I should note that Wild believes that “kidnapping is as accurate as slavery”. He does not claim that slavery is the most accurate yet nevertheless should be replaced, but the use of public perception as a reason to change terminology in science is still interesting.

Ant Slavery
Polyergus mexicanus, a “slave-raiding” ant, and its ant captives (Alex Wild)

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Saint Basil, in his letter “against Eunomius the heretic”, used mankind’s insufficient knowledge of the ant to make his argument. It’s rather interesting, even if relatively straightforward, so I think it best to quote his Letter XVI in full:

He who maintains that it is possible to arrive at the discovery of things actually existing, has no doubt by some orderly method advanced his intelligence by means of the knowledge of actually existing things. It is after first training himself by the apprehension of small and easily comprehensible objects, that he brings his apprehensive faculty to bear on what is beyond all intelligence. He makes his boast that he has really arrived at the comprehension of actual existences; let him then explain to us the nature of the least of visible beings; let him tell us all about the ant. Does its life depend on breath and breathing? Has it a skeleton? Is its body connected by sinews and ligaments? Are its sinews surrounded with muscles and glands? Does its marrow go with dorsal vertebrae; from brow to tail? Does it give impulse to its moving members by the enveloping nervous membrane? Has it a liver, with a gall bladder near the liver? Has it kidneys, heart, arteries, veins, membranes, cartilages? Is it hairy or hairless? Has it an uncloven hoof, or are its feet divided? How long does it live? What is its mode of reproduction? What is its period of gestation? How is it that ants neither all walk nor all fly, but some belong to creeping things, and some travel through the air? The man who glories in his knowledge of the really-existing ought to tell us in the meanwhile about the nature of the ant. Next let him give us a similar physiological account of the power that transcends all human intelligence. But if your knowledge has not yet been able to apprehend the nature of the insignificant ant, how can you boast yourself able to form a conception of the power of the incomprehensible God?

It is rather humbling to consider how little we know about the vast majority of over 10,000 species of ants, even 1,600 years after Saint Basil laid bare the extent of man’s myrmecological ignorance. While we do know much more about ants than we did back in the 4th century, things like the average age of individuals or the average period of gestation are still unknown for most species. We really aren’t sure how eusociality evolves. Whole new subfamilies are still being discovered. Maybe it is in fact pure hubris for anyone to pontificate on the exact nature of things like God. Alternatively, perhaps the ant is as complex as any spiritual being? We may never know!

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An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.

Laozi [source]

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All good work is done the way ants do things, little by little

— Lafcadio Hearn, pen name Koizumi Yakumo

Lafcadio Hearn portrait.jpg

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