Debugging the Link between Social Theory and Social Insects

Diane M. Rodgers
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA
2008; 214 pages
ISBN 978-8071-3369-9
Price: $22.95 (paper)

What an odd feeling to be the subject of another’s research program! In this scholarly book, the sociologist Diane Rodgers has provided an invaluable service to entomology by showing how scientific thinking about social insects is bounded by and reflects the culture of those who study them.

Social insects hold special interest for sociologists. Via a carefully constructed argument, Rodgers shows how the study of human social systems and the science of social insects are necessarily connected and in fact form a “legitimating loop.” She starts out by deconstructing the definition of eusociality as the “pinnacle” of insect social evolution. The most commonly accepted definition of eusociality includes three necessary conditions: overlapping generations, division of labor, and cooperative brood care. Each of those conditions is examined with respect to analogous human conditions, and within the context of an implicit hierarchy of sociality. Rodgers then examines the concept of hierarchy as a feature of western thought, with its associations to power and privilege.

Along the way, readers learn how the social sciences and the entomological sciences co-developed. One hundred years ago, it was accepted practice for those whose chief study was insects to draw explicit parallels between their subjects and the human condition; similarly, those most interested in humans often looked to nature for exemplars of appropriate social systems. That is, human social structures were legitimized by reference to naturally-occurring phenomena, while entomological social phenomena were interpreted within the context of westernized human culture. The two disciplines did not diverge until social Darwinism was discredited; the disciplines parted company in the 1940s. Even so, entrenched metaphors, terminology, and ways of framing scientific thought about social insects continue to this day.

Rodgers uses a variety of lenses to deconstruct our work, including post-colonialism and feminism. I offer two particularly striking examples. Western naturalists during the great age of discovery often sought out the opinions of indigenous peoples about the insects they saw. They learned about what indigenous peoples called “visiting ants.”  These ants were welcomed every year, as they moved into homes and essentially cleaned them of vermin. Western scientists, embedded in a culture of colonial exploitation, interpreted the behavior quite differently and renamed the insects “army ants,” with militaristic descriptions of bivouacs, raiding columns, and scouts. Similarly, Rodgers deconstructs gendered language used to describe the roles of males and females within social insect colonies. The queen is described primarily with respect to her role as an egg producer, and references to the mating flight abound with flowery descriptions of the “high point of her life,” a frame of reference that serves to augment the status of males.

What does such an analysis mean for today’s entomologists? First, it is important to recognize that our current science retains many implicit concepts of hierarchy, power, and western ideology. Those inclined to dispute the point need only read a popular article about social insects or tune into nature documentaries on television to be convinced. Just as importantly, Rodgers describes several lines of research that have only recently broken away from the traditional mindset. For example, self-organization theory abandons the early conception that the queen (and king, for termites) directs all activities within the colony from the brood chamber. We now know that complex social behavior and colony organization can be produced from very simple decision rules applied flexibly. Similarly, the concept of caste has become loosened substantially over decades of research that demonstrate flexibility of roles within larger colonies.

As a reader, I wanted much more discussion of current ideas in social insect biology. I was especially surprised at the omission of sociobiology’s rise. Since Wilson’s landmark book (1975), the fields of evolutionary psychology and social anthropology have used genetic thinking to generate testable hypotheses. The dividing line between entomology and social science was erased, generating considerable backlash from those fearing a social agenda founded on the argument that what is natural is good (i.e. natural law). Readers interested in the development of sociobiology as a discipline will have to consult other authors, notably the historian Charlotte Sleigh (2007). A second major movement that receives no treatment from Rodgers is the application of kin selection to explain not only cooperation but also conflict within insect societies. Hamilton’s theory of social evolution (1964), extended by Trivers to kin-directed conflicts (1976), has opened entire fields of study, both entomological and sociological.

Rodger’s book certainly made me think about other entomological research questions hindered by human conventions, and here I offer just one. We humans have helpless offspring, and the prevailing view is that the grub-like larvae of hymenoptera are likewise helpless. Yet recent work has shown quite clearly that those larvae play a crucial role in colony nutrition. Workers bring solid and liquid food into the colony and feed it to larvae; those workers gain nutrition themselves during trophollaxis with larvae or with other workers that have been fed by larvae. Thus larvae provide an important source of adult nutrition.  Only by excruciatingly exacting study of trophollactic exchanges have we come to appreciate that larvae comprise the digestive organ for a social insect colony.

Rodgers’ book can be a bit of a tough slog for scientists, since it uses sociological conventions and jargon. However, Rodgers does such a good job of laying out her argument and bolstering it with liberal quotations from primary sources, that I found it an enjoyable read overall. Those interested in additional studies by historians, philosophers, early naturalists, and social scientists will find an excellent reference list and a good index.

Like other scientists, we entomologists adopt a fiction that our work is a pure search for the truth. Rodgers shows that it is indeed a fiction. To be sure, we search for accuracy and authenticity, but the way we search and what we recognize as accurate or authentic are constrained by the cultures in which we are embedded.


References Cited

Hamilton, W.D. 1964.The genetical evolution of social behaviour I,II. J. Theor. Biol. 7: 1-32.

Sleigh, C. 2007.Six legs better: a cultural history of myrmecology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.

Trivers, R.L. and H. Hare. 1976.Haplodiploidy and the evolution of the social insects. Science 191:249-263.

Wilson, E.O. 1975.Sociobiology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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