May 12, 2012
The Original Colonist
From The New York Times:
This is not a humble book. Edward O. Wilson wants to answer the questions Paul Gauguin used as the title of one of his most famous paintings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” At the start, Wilson notes that religion is no help at all — “mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity” — and contemporary philosophy is also irrelevant, having “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.” The proper approach to answering these deep questions is the application of the methods of science, including archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Also, we should study insects.
...In “The Social Conquest of Earth,” he explores the strange kinship between humans and some insects. Wilson calculates that one can stack up log-style all humans alive today into a cube that’s about a mile on each side, easily hidden in the Grand Canyon. And all the ants on earth would fit into a cube of similar size. More important, humans and certain insects are the planet’s “eusocial” species — the only species that form communities that contain multiple generations and where, as part of a division of labor, community members sometimes perform altruistic acts for the benefit of others. Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling. The army ants of Africa march in columns of up to a million or more, devouring small animals that get in their way. Weaver ants “form chains of their own bodies in order to pull leaves and twigs together to create the walls of shelters. Others weave silk drawn from the spinnerets of their larvae to hold the walls in place.” Leafcutter ants “cut fragments from leaves, flowers and twigs, carry them to their nests and chew the material into a mulch, which they fertilize with their own feces. On this rich material, they grow their principal food, a fungus belonging to a species found nowhere else in nature. Their gardening is organized as an assembly line, with the material passed from one specialized caste to the next.”
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