Sunday, March 15, 2009

Insect Politics

Ant farms don't seem to be as popular today with young boys as they were when I was a boy. There were plastic ant farms that allowed ants to build their nests in containers with plastic windows so that you could watch them at work. But I preferred to use Mason jars filled with dirt.

One day, I went to my back yard to examine my ant colony, and I was terrified to see that my black ant colony was under attack from a red ant colony. The fighting was vicious. Since this was at the peak of the Cold War, I imagined that my ants were fighting off the Red Army. After a few hours of battle, my ants were completely overrun by the Reds. It was a sad day.

Years later, when I was a college student reading Aristotle, I was pleased to see that Aristotle agreed with me that ants were political animals. According to Aristotle, some animals are solitary and others gregarious. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders. Leaders can help a community by directing it to its common ends, but leaders can also harm a community when they lead factions that divide it. The distinguishing characteristic of the political animals is that they cooperate for some common work or function (koinon ergon). Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense.

And yet, Aristotle explains, human beings are more political than other political animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech. Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good. Through speech, human beings can deliberate about the collective good. A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common advantage of all of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its ruling group.

If we were to follow Aristotle's lead, we would have to see political science as embracing all of the political animals, which would allow us to compare human politics with the politics of other political animals. I have argued for doing that in various articles and in Chapter 3 of Darwinian Natural Right.

In identifying ants, bees, and wasps as political animals, Aristotle recognized what biologists today see as the highly social nature of the eusocial insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera. These insects live in colonies that can have as many as 20 million members. One or a few members reproduce. Most of the other members act as workers who rarely reproduce. The colony members are all female, with queens being reproductive. Males are produced only for short periods of mating. The size and complexity of these social insect colonies make them comparable to human communities.

Apparently, Aristotle did not recognize that other group of eusocial insects--the termites--belonging to the order Isoptera. In some ways, the termites are more like humans than are the hymenopteran insects, because in termite colonies, a king lives with a queen, and the workers are often both male and female, with some division of labor between the sexes.

There have been great advances in the study of insect societies. Much of this research is surveyed in two recent books--Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (Norton, 2008); and Jurgen Gadau and Jennifer Fewell, eds., Organization of Insect Societies (Harvard University Press, 2009).

I argue that this research supports Aristotle against Hobbes. In contrast to Aristotle's claim that human beings were by nature political animals comparable to the social insects, Hobbes insisted on a radical separation between animal societies as founded on natural instinct and human societies as founded on social learning. Unlike Hobbes, Aristotle saw no unbridgeable gulf between animal instinct and human learning, because he thought that almost all animals have some natural instincts for social learning, and some are intelligent enough to live as social and political animals.

The organization of complex animal societies requires communication. Among human beings, the primary forms of communication are audiovisual--as in language and nonverbal signalling. Among social insects, the primary form of communication is chemical signalling. All researchers recognize the complexity of insect communication. Some--like Nigel Franks at the University of Bristol--even argue that ants engage in teaching. Other researchers--like Ed Wilson--argue that insect learning is more hard-wired genetically.

Wilson and Holldobler have identified three forces in the evolution of insect sociality--individual selection, group selection, and collateral kin selection. Through individual selection, individuals cooperate to enhance their individual survival and reproduction. Through group selection, individuals cooperate within a group to outcompete other groups. Through collateral kin selection, individuals cooperate to spread genes shared by collateral kin. Ed Wilson and David Sloan Wilson emphasize group selection as more important than collateral kin selection. But other scientists in the tradition of W. D. Hamilton emphasize kin selection.

In any case, one can see here a deepening of Aristotle's insights, because Aristotle saw political life as rooted in the extension of parental care and in the cooperation of individuals for the common good of their group in competition with other groups.

A biopolitical science bringing together Aristotelian political theory and Darwinian biology would include the comparative politics of humans and insects.

Some of the continuing debates over the evolution of insect sociality are briefly surveyed in two recent articles in Science--one by Elizabeth Pennisi (February 6) and another by Virginia Morell (March 6).

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