Nature: Splendor in The Grass

A new book by noted entomologists looks to the ant for behavior's roots and discovers the iron laws of the superorganism

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Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time ants show up in the potato salad. The 8,800 known species of the family Formicidae make up from 10% to 15% of the world's animal biomass, the total weight of all fauna. They are the most dominant social insect in the world, found almost everywhere except in the polar regions. Ants turn more soil than earthworms; they prune, weed and police most of the earth's carrion. Among the most gregarious of creatures, they are equipped with a sophisticated chemical communications system. To appreciate the strength and speed of this pesky invertebrate, consider that a leaf cutter the size of a man could run repeated four-minute miles while carrying 750 lbs. of potato salad.

Or nearly 100 copies of The Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. Published by Harvard University Press, the hefty volume is the result of 20 years of collaborative field and laboratory studies by Holldobler and his better-known Harvard colleague. For Wilson, 61, one of the school's most popular professors and curator of entomology at its Museum of Comparative Zoology, the book represents another exploration into the controversial field of sociobiology, a discipline he founded to study the "biological basis of social behavior."

When this seemingly innocuous phrase appeared in Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, it set off alarm bells as surely as ant pheromones trigger the defense mechanisms of a threatened colony. Critics scrambled out of the corners of the academy to attack Wilson's ideas as dangerously deterministic. To suggest, as he did, that human actions were more hard-wired than generally believed threatened to upset the balance of nurture so carefully guarded by those who held that environment, not heredity, shaped behavior.

Wilson, a tall, lanky scholar with a disarmingly casual manner, responded with dismay. He argued forcefully that many critics did not bother to read all of Sociobiology, which did not junk free will and environmental influences but only modified them. "On the basis of objective evidence," he wrote, "the truth appears to lie somewhere in between, closer to the environmentalist than to the genetic pole."

Molecular biologists and researchers in brain chemistry were already challenging the nurturist doctrine long held by psychologists and social scientists. In a 1979 lecture on comparative social theory, Wilson framed the issue much the way Galileo might have when talking to an audience that still thought the sun revolved around the earth. "To be anthropocentric," he said, "is to remain unaware of the limits of human nature, the significance of biological processes underlying human behavior, and the deeper meaning of long-term genetic evolution."

Despite resistance, sociobiology has been absorbed into the scientific mainstream, and Wilson's spadework in the fields of entomology and island biogeography has passed rigorous peer review. His book On Human Nature won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and this year he shared the Crafoord Prize with population biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences administers the $240,000 award, established to recognize areas not covered by the Nobel Prizes.

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