I’m on the road this week, so today’s Style Saturday will be brief but (formicid) fabulous! Here at The Daily Ant we received a request to look at more myrmecologically-themed menswear. The truth is, while ants may have relatively strict gender roles, creativity, rule-breaking, and self-expression are part and parcel of true human style. To that extent, the looks featured here are not intended to be strictly gendered. That said, there’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself within the confines of some social norms either! So, up this week, some traditional, casual, and formicid-fabulous menswear. Grey Ant sunglasses play off a rainbow ant baseball tee to bring a splash of color to an otherwise neutral look. Classic hoodie, slim-cut jeans, and low-top sneakers balance out the quirkiness of an ant-print watch for a look that says apparel can be antsy and awesome.
The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Sameer Yadav.
Anthropocentrism: A Problem for Neuroethology and Philosophical Theology
As the summer months grow hotter it becomes ant-season inside our home. In search of food and water, a single scout will inevitably end up discovering the smallest drips of water and crumbs we leave behind, and return in legion. Despite the nuisance, I can’t help but be impressed with the intelligence exhibited in their behavior — the directional savvy displayed in where and how our morsels are discovered, the complicated path-finding required for a scout to return to its compatriots with the happy news, the incredible detail of signaling and cooperation involved in the transport and distribution of what they find. Researchers in animal intelligence report that in order for ants to make their way into my house and secure that Nature Valley granola bar, they have to track sun-position, wind direction, and a host of other environmental cues, while choosing the most efficient routes from among various options. They can detect when they are lost and deploy sophisticated search-patterns that require them to draw on recent memory such as backtracking to their last known location. How can creatures with such tiny brains (no offense) and comparatively limited neurological resources (as compared with us) exhibit such complex behavior?
Are ants really that important? Clearly, readers of The Daily Ant ought to be settled on this question. But for the unantlightened, what strong evidence exists in the scientific literature to support the unique importance of ants in, say, tropical ecosystems? A skeptic could make the argument that such a view is only tentatively supported by qualitative assessments, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and inferences from rigorous but highly localized ecological tests. That is, until now!
Enter our team of Hymenopteran heroes: Hannah Griffiths, Louise Ashton, Alice Walker, Fevziye Hasan, Theodore Evans, Paul Eggleton, and Catherine Parr.
An antrepid crew! Alice Walker image unavailable.
The fellowship of the wingless researchers set out to quantify the relative role of foraging worker ants on resource removal across a large ecological area, explicitly comparing the impact of the ant community to other invertebrates as well as vertebrates. Working in a tropical rainforest in Malaysia, this band of biologists set up different types of plots – one set excluded ants using an ant-targeting bait-based chemical treatment, another set excluded vertebrates, and the third set excluded both ants and vertebrates. Then, they placed a variety of baits in each plot, and assessed resource removal rate. Thus, the relative role of ants, non-ant invertebrates, and vertebrates could each be assessed, and the hypothesis of ant dominance tested. [Note: The authors explain that bearded pigs destroyed many of their bait stations, which were removed from analyses, but that “the likelihood of a station being attacked by pigs was not significantly affected by plot treatment, cage treatment or bait type.” Per usual, vertebrates try to meddle in the affairs of inverts, but to no avail!]
What did the group of gregarious myrmecologists discover? Well, as reported in the Journal of Animal Ecology, they found ants to be of remarkable, irreplaceable importance. Specifically, ants contributed to no less than 52% of total bait removal, a percentage that the authors note is surely an underestimate, given that it was only possible to remove about 90% of ants in the ant removal treatment plot. Furthermore, this foraging impact was not compensated for when ants were excluded – that is, non-ant invertebrates were not up to the task of matching the rate of resource removal in absantia.
Although such an exciting documentation of ant dominance relative to other organisms was unnecessary for those who are already formicid-forward in their thinking, this rigorous work by Hannah Griffiths and colleagues provides a novel type of results that support the view, often held with certainty, that ants are the most functionally important group of macroscopic organisms in the tropics – and, indeed, the world!
The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-fifth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Gabriel Richardson Lear.
Aristotle and Myrmecology as a Humanistic Discipline
“The study of ants is the way to self-knowledge.” Aristotle didn’t actually say that, but he might well have believed it. At least, there is a philosophical ambition to his approach to biology that invites self-reflection. Aristotle’s strategy in biology was to take vast quantities of data—some apparently his own observations; much of it reported by others—about all sorts of animals and categorize them on the basis of similarities and differences in their functional parts. So for example, all animals perceive—that, according to Aristotle, is just what distinguishes animals from plants—so all animals must have sense organs. But not all animals have all five senses; and even when a group of animals shares, say, the sense of smell, their noses vary in shape and proportionate size and in fact some of them—for example, the ant!—do not have noses at all. So, in creating the class of animals who smell, we include all animals with noses or some analogous organ. Aristotle’s recognition of functionally analogous parts in different species of animal is not only a major advance in the history of biology, it also invites philosophical reflection on what it means to be an animal and, in particular, to be the kind of animal we human beings are.
Consider again the example of ants and the sense of smell. How do we know ants smell, if they don’t have noses? (I have read that ants smell with their antennae, so I take it Aristotle was right about this.) To answer this question, we have to think again about what it means to smell. Whereas we might have assumed that smelling was necessarily a matter of sniffing, it turns out that the connection with inhaling is only contingent, true only for animals who smell with noses. Aristotle admits to perplexity concerning the question how ants smell. But he says that we can tell that ants do smell, because they are able to find food that is far away (De Sensu 5). A modern philosopher, such as Thomas Nagel, might be astonished by Aristotle’s confidence on this matter; how can we know that ants smell if we cannot hope to enter their ant-subjectivity? But Aristotle’s approach, emphasizing function and analogy, avoids this problem. Ants march up and down and around corners because, presumably, they have detected that there is something good to eat in the distance. Likewise, we make a beeline—or should I say, an ant-line—towards the kitchen when we detect that there is some bacon frying in there. That is to say, we and the ants smell it. We can discern and distinguish different scents. We don’t need to know “what it’s like to be an ant” to know that we are like them in this important respect.
Reflecting on the ant shows us that smell is, at a minimum, a distance sense for food (as opposed to taste, which is a contact sense for food or its opposite). But that, in turn, draws our attention to the fact that, for us at least, smell is not only the distance sense for food. Aristotle is aware (of course) that we take pleasure in the smell of certain flowers or perfumes and he notices that the sort of pleasure we take in these scents is quite different from the pleasure of “nutritive” scents (De Sensu 5). The smell of bacon on a Sunday morning prompts me to get out of bed, go into the kitchen, and eat the bacon I find there. By contrast, the smell of a peony prompts me only to go on smelling. Aristotle was very struck by this fact that human beings, but (apparently) not ants, take pleasure in smelling—and looking and hearing and touching and tasting—simply for its own sake. In fact, he interpreted this as a piece of evidence for one of his most important claims about human beings: “All human being by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything we prefer sight to almost everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, make us know and brings to light many differences between things” (Metaphysics I.1). So we are led via the path of the ant to awareness of our own, perhaps distinctively human, way of existing as animals in the world.
Take another similarity we have with ants: According to Aristotle, we and the ant are among the relatively small class of “political” animals. This sounds a bit strange, so sometimes people translate the word “politikos” in this context as “social.” But if we do that, we risk missing the more specific and interesting thing that Aristotle is trying to say. Herd animals are social in the sense of living their lives in groups, but Aristotle draws a distinction between ‘political’ animals and ‘gregarious’ animals such as cattle. Merely gregarious animals associate with each other for the sake of mutual protection, but basically lead their lives as individuals, living side by side. Political animals live together in a stronger sense than this. For one thing, they create their own habitats—ants make colonies; bees make hives; human beings make cities (city=polis)—where they can live together (History of Animals I.1). But more important, the life political animals live is an activity that is essentially shared with others. Or as Aristotle puts it, “Political animals are such as have some one common object in view” (History of Animals I.1). Ants work together: one ant finds food; the others follow; and when they take it back to the colony, they share it. We live this way, too, even if there are some among us who do not seem to fully appreciate this fact.
But just as with the sense of smell, noticing that we are like ants insofar as we lead “political” lives invites reflection on the way our form of being political differs. Aristotle points out two differences. First, he thinks we are “more political” than ants and bees because we can talk to each other about what’s good and bad, just and unjust (Politics I.2). His point isn’t entirely clear, but I think what he means is that language allows us to share not only an activity, but also the way that activity seems. Because we have language, we can persuade each other to “see things our way” and that makes the activities we decide to do together more of a joint endeavor. Second, Aristotle believed that unlike human beings, ants have no rulers (History of Animals). I do not know whether he was right about this. He seems not to have realized that ant colonies have “queens”…but how analogous are ant queens to human queens really? In any case, Aristotle’s reflection on the ant allowed him to entertain the possibility that life activity can be shared with others—it can be “political”—without there being a person (or ant) designated as the one in charge of holding it together. And that, in turn, can prompt us to question why it is that human shared life usually does have leaders and to reconsider what a good leader ought to be like.
In a beautiful passage of the Parts of Animals, Aristotle says that every aspect of nature, no matter how small or humble, is marvelous and worthy of study: “For if some have no graces to charm the sense, yet nature…gives amazing pleasure in their study to all who can trace links of causation and are inclined to philosophy” (I.5). We may have decided he was wrong about how natural causation works, but this sentiment is one we can share. For Aristotle, the study of ants is both a scientific and a humanistic discipline. In coming to understand ants, we learn more about how in general the natural world works and also come to understand ourselves.
Dr. Gabriel Richardson Lear is a professor and chair of the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy. Her work on Ancient Greek philosophy and ethics include “Aristotle on Moral Virtue and the Fine” and Happy Lives and the Highest Good. For Dr. Richardson Lear’s engaging take on Plato and philosophical wonder, see here. Or, if poetry is more your thing, listen to this discussion of Plato’s philosophy of poetry on the Elucidations podcast, here.
My antrepid readers will have noticed that Style Saturdays took a brief summer hiatus; I took a break for my brother’s wedding and some summer travel. In the meantime, I’ve heard from some formicid fashion fans that becoming a fashion-ant-sa is surprisingly expensive. Taking your lab look from drab to fab is probably always going to involve some measure of investment. Fashion – like most art – is beautiful but expensive. However, the truth is, you don’t need to break the bank to get a colony-couture look. Some of the myrmecological pieces featured thus far in the Style Saturdays series are genuinely unique, but it’s often pretty easy to get the rest of a look for less as long as you’re willing to improvise.
Take this gorgeous ensemble pairing Yves Saint Laurent with beautiful jewelry from Alolo:
Here’s how to get a similar look for less. (With a little more surfing the web, or a willingness to thrift — you could get a similar look for even less!) These tights are expensive, but also amazing, and paired with less expensive clothes and jewelry, formicid fashion can be fab and frugal!
The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-fourth contribution in the series, submitted by Suzanne Kawamleh.
Ants and NGOs
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I work for a non-profit organization that aims to provide higher education opportunities to civilians inside war torn Syria, Promise for Relief and Human Development. We have a few other aims as well. We hope to provide an alternative to joining any one of the armed or extremist groups actively recruiting young men and women. We wish to encourage critical thinking. We want our campuses to serve as community centers with public lectures on relevant social issues like prescription drug abuse and psychosocial concerns like PTSD in war-ravaged civilian populations. We have achieved this amidst one of the worst man-made disasters since World War II. Missile strikes, chemical weapons, beheadings, and sexual violence as a weapon of war are standard fare in Syria. And yet, our students attend seminars, form study groups, and sit in exams. It is a striking example of organization amidst chaos and violence, one of the most astonishing successes to take place within the borders of a failed state.
Christian Alexander Stidsen Pinkalski and colleagues have a paper about ant poop forthcoming in the Journal of Ecology. Unfortunately, the full article is apparently not yet available online. But if the abstract is to be believed, the researchers confined weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) to the canopy above coffee plants, and fed the ants a diet labelled with a particular version of nitrogen, 15N. This labelling approach allowed the researchers to differentiate between nitrogen derived from ants and that originating from other sources. Then, they tested the nitrogen profile of the coffee plants, and found that 15N uptake and overall nitrogen uptake was higher in the coffee plants below these canopy ants. This strongly suggests that nitrogen derived from ant poop is an important source of nitrogen in plant communities, and thus may be an under-appreciated component of the nutrient cycle. Well, shit!
Very few things have nothing to do with ants, and Anthony Scaramucci (or, as he is known in the adult cartoon we call reality, “The Mooch”) is no exception.
Many readers will have only just recently learned their Moochian Myrmecology from intrepid journalist and gleeful polemicist Matt Taibbi. Who is Matt Taibbi? Well, let me put it this way. In 2005, Matt Taibbi wrote an essay called “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” which, like Donald Trump, earned condemnation from both Hillary Clinton and Anthony Weiner. In 2012, he wrote this touching eulogy on the occasion of the actual death of Andrew Breitbart. In the very same year, he also wrote this love letter to David Brooks. (Which reminds me, I swear I once heard Ann Coulter describe David Brooks as the “Elisabeth Hasselbeck of the New York Times,” but I can’t find the reference.)
The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-third contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Michael Ruse.
All About Ants:
What Darwin the Scientist Learnt From Darwin the Christian and What That Tells Us About Darwinism Today
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
(Proverbs 6: 6-8)
Many people in American society today loathe and detest evolutionary thinking and have a special animus against the theory held by virtually all professional biologists, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection (Numbers 2006). This opposition by evangelical Christians and fellow travelers is understandable. You simply cannot accept Genesis taken literally – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their irresistible desire for forbidden fruit – and hold to modern thinking on paleoanthropology – the study of human origins. What is truly surprising is the extent to which Darwinism – by some, evolution even – is opposed by today’s leading professional philosophers. In recent works, noted thinkers Thomas Nagel (2012) and Jerry Fodor (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini 2010) have both written strongly against Darwinism. Alvin Plantinga (1991, 2011) doubts evolution itself and thinks Darwinism collapses in on itself.
As the classic public service announcement goes, “If you see something, say something.” But adherence to this precept clearly generates a problem: if you don’t see something, you won’t say something! It is perhaps because of this mental framework that subterranean ants have received such little work in the scientific literature, compared to their aboveground sisters. Either that, or studying subterranean ants is really hard. Whatever the reason for this historical lack of premier underground ant content, a recent manuscript by Mark Wong and Benoit Guénard in Myrmecological News is exciting indeed.