Ants redux…

Ants were the heroes of an earlier post. There they were lauded for their ability to create nearly Utopian conditions in their colonies, despite – or perhaps precisely because of – their ant-size brains.

However, ants, like us, still find room for improvement! Consider this bit from a talk at last week’s meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Neil Tsutsui of the University of California at Berkeley spoke on “the behavior and chemical ecology of Argentine ant supercolonies.”

Does that topic make your heart beat fast? Well, maybe it should. Originating in Argentina, this ant has found itself introduced into other Mediterranean climate regimes around the world, where (like many other invasive species in other contexts) it’s had an extremely damaging effect. Though individually small in size, these ants are displacing native ant species. In the process, they’re disrupting ecosystems (and agriculture, by tending aphids and other plant parasites), notably in California, Professor Tsutsui’s back yard.

One key to their success? Their ability to form extended supercolonies. Virtually all other ant colonies will view ants from colonies a mere hundred meters or so distant as enemies, and make every effort to attack and kill them. By contrast, displaced Argentine ants, for the most part, wherever they’ve been transplanted around the world, seem to form one big happy family. [For some reason, this is not true of Argentine ants in their native Argentina.] Tsutsui and his colleagues have transplanted Argentine ants from colonies hundreds of miles and even continents apart, and they’ve been assimilated into their new Argentine-ant homes without consequence. Try that with other ants, and they’ll immediately be torn apart. The chemical details of the reasons for this are fascinating in themselves, but that’s another story. What’s pertinent to today’s post is that apparently, by means of the energy and resources they save by not fighting among themselves, Argentine ants are winning the competition with hundreds of other ant species.

Fast forward to another talk, from another scientific discipline, but at the same APS meeting. Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton, spoke to the topic “Envy up, scorn down: How comparison divides us.” She described some simple but telling experiments showing how you and I are quick to categorize people based on many factors, such as race, gender, wealth, and age. She said we quickly decide, based on appearances, that “I want what you have,” or, conversely, “You don’t matter to me.” She pointed out that interdependence, and meaningful collaborations at the individual level, help us get past such initial preconceptions and labels. However, people in power have to work harder to get past such stereotypes. Along the way she gave the impression that though this link between biases and behavior might seem natural enough, it comes at a cost to our function and effectiveness as a society.

The APS sessions concluded Saturday afternoon with a panel discussion on yet another realm – this year’s Gulf oil spill. From the talks and discussion it became amply apparent that “where you stand depends upon where you sit.” How successful and effective was the response? What could be done better next time? What is needed from public policy going forward? It turns out (surprise!) that public-sector, private-sector, and NGO speakers had divergent views on these and other questions.

Clearly, much had been learned since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill – as a result of the policies put in place and the research launched at that time. Encouragingly, it seemed there was general agreement that a bit more knowledge and understanding – information, say, on the performance of oil dispersants at depth versus on the surface of the ocean – would have been helpful in the present instance.

Nevertheless it was clear that even as the world searches for renewable-energy alternatives, our appetite for fossil fuels will remain. Continuing demand is driving extraction further offshore, to greater depths, to locations all around the world, including the remote, relatively inaccessible, and fragile Arctic Ocean. To minimize the risk of future accidents (and there will be some) to the environment, policy makers, energy-sector leaders, scientists and engineers, and many others, will find it increasingly essential to collaborate more effectively across the barriers that divide us.

So, the message from all three realms – ants, people, the policy arena – is similar, nigh on universal. Our greatest challenge is not technical, but interpersonal. Why should we belatedly rediscover our need to collaborate with each other, across professions and disciplines, in each new arena totally afresh? Let’s do a little more to make a bias toward cooperation our starting point.

We do better at what we practice. So here’s a thought exercise for you and me. As we go through our day, let’s try to build some self-awareness. How are we reacting to this or that person at our work, the store, aboard the Metro or the bus, or on the street? What do we flash on initially? Are we more alert to threats? Competition? Or possibilities and opportunity? Can we drive our thinking a bit more toward: what problems can this individual (versus category) and I tackle together that we couldn’t tackle separately? How might we start that process – in the lab, on the university campus, by Wall Street, on Capitol Hill?

Argentine ants have taken this to another level. So can we.

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One Response to Ants redux…

  1. Pingback: Rafting fire ants: role models for surviving troubled times | Living on the Real World

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