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Social Insects

prof. Zygmunt Bauman

A stunning discovery made in Panama by researchers from the London Zoological Society has made an undeservedly brief appearance as a recent news item. Applying state-of-the-art electronic technology, the scientists had spent 6,000 hours observing the movements of four hundred and twenty two wasps from thirty three nests. Their conclusions have turned topsy-turvy established notions about the habits of the social insects, such as wasps, bees, ants and termites, which had been accepted as orthodox over centuries both by zoologists and laymen. Yet again, the praxeo-morphic roots of our knowledge about the world were made apparent. We were again reminded that, as Protagoras put it, ‘man is the measure of the universe’; thus, we perceive the world through the prism of the activities to which we are accustomed.
For centuries, it has been an axiom of zoological science that the social behaviour of insects applies only within the confines of the hive or the nest. Inside a hive or a nest, social activity is conducted in concord and the fruits of labour shared out equitably. However, between particular hives or nests, a war to the death prevails. Woe betide renegades or intruders who leave their own swarm in order to join another, be it deliberately or out of absent-mindedness: they will be instantly singled out and driven out. Or even killed, should they persist in their desire to settle in their new chosen home for good. It had never been doubted that such a course of events would inevitably occur, with no other outcome possible. There had been no sophisticated tools for observing the peregrinations of single specimens, but even if they had by some miracle been available, no questions had been asked which such investigations would have been able to answer.
The chief point of interest was the logistics of how – whether using sight, smell or touch - the bee or ant police were able to track the suspects and carry out the necessary actions which, in the case of the countries of origin of the scientists themselves, were based on the use of identity cards, passport offices, immigration officers as well as the universal obligation to register one’s place of residence. What had made it possible for the London zoologists to make their discovery in Panama was not the new technology; rather, the fact that they were tuned into problems different from those that had preoccupied their forebears; they had arrived from a different London, focussed on different problems and challenges, and which had given them unique life experiences.
To their astonishment, they discovered, that as many as 56% of the worker wasps changed their nests during their lifetime. What is more, on re-settling in a ‘foreign’ nest, they did not become inferior members of the swarm, tolerated only because they were willing to undertake dirty jobs avoided by the natives, which the ‘immigrants’ were obliged to accept. The new-comers were able to settle on equal rights with the natives, so to speak. They were able to fit in seamlessly, so that – if not for their electronic tagging, nothing would have enabled an observer to know about their activities or their fate apart from the activities or the fate of the indigenous insects. All the swarms investigated by the London zoologists turned out to be mixed populations, in which both the wasps born into the particular swarm and those who had arrived from other swarms when already mature, together and amicably, wing in wing, flew around looking for the same food, transported it back to the same nest and for the same larvae...
‘How can this be?’, wondered the scientists. The findings went directly against the orthodox views, traditionally passed on by the venerable teachers to the students. How could this anomaly, so glaringly at odds with the established views, be absorbed and made palatable? How could this anomaly be made to fit into the larger perception of the world based on the existing paradigm of the insect life, without exploding it completely? We must not be surprised that, faced with the dilemma of whether to postpone the publication of the results or whether to abandon the orthodox paradigm – both equally unappealing decisions; the scientists instinctively resorted to the stock tricks, used for centuries to promote the smooth running of human relations. They opined that the puzzling behaviour of the Panama wasps was bound to be due to the fact that the swarms were all blood-related (even though wasps have no blood...) Therefore, the incomers were not strangers, or common vagabonds, and certainly not from a different tribe. The peculiar hospitality shown by the hosts was thus no more than the natural welcoming of the brothers or cousins... The electronic equipment did not provide any proof of the blood relations, but this did not hinder such an appealing theory. We all know that it is natural to love one’s family; the indigenous wasps love the immigrant wasps, thus the immigrant wasps are related to the indigenous wasps. Quod erat demonstrandum.
What the London zoologists did not take into account, or perhaps had never been taught this at school or managed to forget what they had been taught, was that more than a century of epic efforts had been needed, by the likes of Herder, Fichte, Treitschke and Bismarck to manage to persuade Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, or the people of Baden or Wittenberg that they should treat one another in a brotherly fashion, since they were all but boughs that grew out of the common Germanic oak, thus irrevocably bound forever. Today, a century later, the Ossies and Wessies are still to be reminded of such a notion... Nor did the zoologists pause to consider that the French revolutionaries found it necessary to include ‘fraternity’ as one of the three principles on which they aimed to base the new world order, as they tried to inspire with the fervour of civic solidarity the staid provincial inhabitants of Languedoc, Poitou, Limousin, Burgundy, Brittany, of Guyana or Franche-Comte. The Polish patriots acted similarly at the time of the partitions and during the period following the partitions of Poland.   We should also consider that, to this day, all those promoting social movements of all sorts tend to address those they wish to inspire as ‘brothers and sisters’.
To sum up: the differences between the ontological orientations of the past and the present generations of scientists can be explained by the juxtaposition of the past era of nation-building and the present period of mass migrations and diaspora and the resultant merging of the ethnicity, religion, language and custom. People now travel in all directions... For example, in Great Britain, much has been said and written of late, often with disquiet, about the million of newly arrived Poles – but a million and a half of native British have settled in Australia, another million in Spain, hundreds of thousands in Nigeria, and a dozen individuals even in North Korea...
We are all slowly beginning to resemble the wasps from Panama. No wonder, that – in them – we discover comrades in arms. Daily, we battle with problems which they have already solved. Let us follow their example!

[Translated by Anda McBride]

 

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