Tuesday, May 20, 2008

PBS: Nova: "Lord of the Ants" and Sociobiology

On May 20, MPT on PBS presented the NOVA program “Lord of the Ants: Sociobiology” about the life and work of biologist Edward O. Wilson, born 1930. Dr. Wilson grew up in southern Alabama and developed a fascination with wild animals in the bayous. Because of some hearing and vision problems, he decided to focus on insects rather than birds, his first interest. He became an entomologist. He says that his whole life he has felt his interest in science was like that of a little boy.

He would become a professor at Harvard in the 50s, and would set out to categorize social behaviors of animals. For the most part, insects and mammals (sometimes) have social organizations. Ants, bees and termites often have social organizations in colonies, with queens, workers, drones, and sometimes other specialized forms. The social organization of colonies seems sometimes to offer political lessons for human society. Dr. Wilson performs experiments to show that insects communicate with chemicals. If a particular termite is covered with a particular chemical, other insects presume it is dead. Chemicals also lay out routes for them to follow. Wilson wonders if social organization is compatible with evolution as usually taught, since it seems to demand altruistic self-sacrifice of some individuals.

He also explored social organizations among monkeys, and altruistic behavior, grooming and wound cleaning. Although not mentioned in the documentary, lions are interesting in that they have social organizations whereas tigers, almost genetically identical, do not. Could this have happened because male lions can be distinguished by manes, which might encourage a social hierarchy of males with a distinguishing secondary sexual characteristic?

In a time when DNA science came into being, Wilson came to believe that genetics influences social behaviors in animals. He published a book called “Sociobiology” in the late 70s, and included a chapter on humans, causing controversy when he claimed that genetics could strongly influence human behaviors, too. Wilson is said to be the only scientist attacked for an idea. There was concern at Harvard that his ideas could justify eugenics, advocated by the Nazis and a subject of an exhibit last year at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Wilson became a proponent of preserving species. He found that 2-3% of the earth’s surface houses 50% of its species. He did a study on how well species return when life on a small island is wiped out, and found that many species would not return. He showed how human activity can wipe out species, with a study comparing Haiti (poor) and the Dominican Republic. Another book was called “On Human Nature.”

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