More than social

Today we had to collect and classify one species of ants (Atta cephalotes) in order to record the taxonomic distribution of subjects that composed that population. In other words, we had to collect and classify leaf cutters ants by size and shape. Four experts helped us to identify the colonies: Ehab Abouheif, Bill Wcislo, Hermogenes Fernandez and Javier Ibarra.

Once we have spotted the potential sites, we used a shovel to find the fungus. The what? That is right, here it is “my” first discovery: leaf cutter ants do not actually eat the leafs that they cut, rather they feed an enormous sponge-like-fungus that live in special chambers  protected by fierce soldiers inside the colony because it is actually the fungus who/what provides nutrients for the ants.

Here is my first thought, “This is awesome! These ants are cultivating fungus”, but then I thought, “ Could it be that it is actually the fungus who is using the ants to be fed and protected?” and then I thought that one explanation does not contradicts the other, both can be true or false at the same time, but at the end neither the ant or the fungus care about what I think, they just have a mutualistic relation where I dont exist and both ant and fungus receive benefits.

Once we capture the ants, around 2000, we put them in buckets with alcohol to later measure and classify them according with the size of their heads. Here is “my” second discovery: within a single colony of these ants there are different individuals that are born with a particular task, weather to be workers, soldiers or queens. Apparently what decides what the ant is going to be are the nutrients that they receive while they are in the egg.

Here is “my” third discovery: My friend Sarai Stuart, an expert on stingless bees form Illinois University, introduced me to the concept of ‘eusociality’, which is the highest system of sociality found in animals… actually mostly in insects, crustaceans, and two mammals, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) and the damaraland blesmol (Fukomys damarensis). Basically there are three characteristics that eusocial animals should meet:

  1. There must be a reproductive division of labour, that is to say, only few members of the community reproduce, but
  2. even if the young are the offspring of few individuals, there is a cooperative care of them in which the whole community participates
  3. There is an overlap of generations.

This “new” concept made me wonder where humans ought to be placed… later on I discovered that this is an ongoing debate for some scholars like Edward O. Wilson, argue that humans are eusocial apes because in our specie there are overlapping  generations, division of labor and some individuals take care of children even if they are not their own. The other position is taken by scientists like  Richard Dawkins whom highlights that even there can be a cooperative behaviour in humans, there is not a reproductive division of labour for most and not few individuals are reproducing.

I tend to  agree with Dawkins, and also I wonder if we are ever going to take responsibility about the problem that the increasing number of humans represents to the planet and then make individual choices that could lead our species towards an eusocial system, or if this ought to be seen only  in SF stories. like the one written by Donna Haraway, in her book “Staying with the Trouble” (2014).

This SF –Science Fiction/Speculative Feminist/Speculative Fabulation/Science Fact– story is called “The Camille Stories”, and basically  proposes a world where some human groups use technology to create new forms of symbiosis with endangered species under the plea ‘Make Kin No Babies’. This plea becomes a motto that gradually drives mankind into a change of values that allows them to live in a damaged planet by not just adopting a particular way of demographic control for just few individuals decide to give birth, but also because  in this story fewer children are born, they are seen as the most important asset of the community whom protects them and raise them as their own in a sort of cooperative parental care, which encourages children to grow up and specialize in a particular symbiont that gradually diversify humans’ senses and morphology to become a real social being or “eusocial”.

I keep wondering, are we ever  going to take responsibility  or our future ought to be seen only  in SF stories?


00013.jpgCamilo Gc


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