Today’s Saturday Interview in the Guardian is with the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson became famous for his work trying to understand the behaviour of ants and particularly the way in which they communicate. Here are a couple of interesting extracts from the Guardian piece:
It was in a Harvard lab in the early 1960s that the young biologist had his epiphany surrounded by a captive colony of fire ants. Wilson thought they were communicating via chemicals, while others thought their messages were mechanical, more like simple taps. So he began dissecting them, looking for the source of the odour trail in miniature glands.
“I tried one after another and nothing, nothing, and finally I came to a tiny gland called Dufour, named after the guy that discovered it,” he explains. “It was sitting there like a pituitary or something and I teased it out and laid the trail and hey! A large part of the colony came pouring out, all excited, and they went wherever I led them.
“I found I could talk to these ants. I could write my name on a sheet of paper next to the nest and they would follow it, so I did that just for fun. I said, ‘This is really something! Maybe ants do have a chemical code and maybe if you can get the right one, you can do amazing things.’
“So I guess that was one of my best moments. I guess that’s the only night I couldn’t sleep. I’m glad I told you that story because it’s just a wonderful adventure and lots of fun to be a scientist.”
His new book takes in language and the arts in its bold attempt to demonstrate that generosity, as mandated by group selection, is humanity’s secret ingredient – and continually warring in each one of us with our more selfish instincts.
“Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue,” he writes in one of the book’s bluntest passages. “Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature.”
Hats off to E.O Wilson for his marvellous and inspirational life-long work with ants. The Qur’an contains a passage about the Prophet Solomon and his ability to understand the language of ants.In the Old Testament, in the Book of Proverbs, Soloman says:”Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”
Today’s heroes are surely those scientists who help us better appreciate and understand the world around us.