We attended a great lecture, "Civilization on Six Legs," at the Academy of Sciences last night, part of Litquake, San Francisco's Literary Festival. I took notes, natch, which are a bit mysterious to me this morning, taken as they were in a planetarium plunged into total darkness for the presentation, lights on only at the end during the Q&A. And this morning as I review those notes and what the two experts, Bee man Thomas Seeley and Ant-omologist Mark Moffett, had to say about collective wisdom and decision-making amongst these insects, I'm still inspired and zing-ed up by their passion for their subject matter.
Oh, sweet animal nerds, is there any category of people on this planet who are more delightful than you? I mean, really, think about David Attenborough and his infectious animation when discussing snails or hedgehogs or snow leopards. Or the scientists in the Black-footed ferret vs. Prairie Dog video that circulated last week (link below), choked up at witnessing something never seen before, two grown men on camera completely in love with what they'd just seen. Or my Mammalogy teacher on Monday night, passionately arguing that the animal on the California state flag should not be the bear but no, the animal who is really responsible for the agricultural riches of this state, the one animal who deserves the recognition for California being the paradise it is -- the pocket gopher, lowly and despised, and yet at the very foundation of the healthy soil at the center of the state.
Seriously, I can't think of any group of people who demonstrate more joie de vivre than people who study animals for a living.
Of course the bees and ants guys were the same way. Imagine spending 35 years of your life, as Thomas Seeley has, learning how bees operate, how a swarm arrives at a quorum, collectively choosing a new home based on a participative democratic process. Fascinating stuff that demands so much devotion, years and years of deep, deep studentship. And yet no loss of humor. Oh, the delightful demonstration of a bee's waggle dance he performed using the projector remote! So funny to refer to bees, in their role in flower reproduction, as flying penises, a hive in your garden as a dawn-to-dusk escort service.
If the bee man was soft-spoken and laid-back, the ant guy was surely not. He was ant, as bee man was bee. Mark Moffett's new book, "Adventures Among Ants," illustrates how ants choose some of the very same behaviors as we humans, whether it's civilizations characterized by hunter-gathering, agriculture, militarism or slave-owning. I was struck early on by his observation that the smaller a population is, the slower it can be. Everything speeds up in species that are more populous. Species of ants that live in small groups, mud ants, for example, in their groups of 10-15, are slow, prey on snails. Species of ants that live in groups of millions make quick motions, organize themselves fast. Apparently, he said, there is a biological value to Type A behavior in large groups. Nice! Check out his blog if you want to know more about how ants, like us, have terrorists.
Truly this world we live in is remarkable. Even the tiniest among us are organized, have purpose, have unknown ways we are able to puzzle out only after years of dedicated watching. How great is that?