Our ideas are, of course, colored by our experiences and environment. It seems likely that those of us who spend time studying ants and other social hymenoptera might lean towards thinking about superorganism concepts and multilevel selection. We are also likely to be or become interested in altruism. If that is the case, you might want to take a look at David Sloan Wilson’s new book Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science).
Right up front, Dr. Wilson only briefly mentions social insects and spends a much greater amount of time laying out the thoughts that economists, philosophers, psychologists, and others have about altruism and human behavior, topics which might not be as familiar to people trained in biology. Dr. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, however, so he examines human behavior through a recognizable lens.
Wilson defines altruism as an intentional act that improves the welfare of others at a cost to, or at least no benefit to, the actor. After introducing the ideas of superorganisms and group-level selection, Wilson quickly determines that altruism does indeed exist, but that it is a group-level rather than individual-level phenomenon. He also takes studying altruism to a new place by separating the act of altruism from any apparent motivations for acting (a necessarily murky area). He then looks for examples of how this works in religion, in economics, and in communities. He reveals that altruism can at times be pathological, for example in cases of co-dependency. In the final chapter on “Planetary Altruism,” Wilson moves into the realm of group-level functions at the level of the world as a whole.
As the author points out in the introduction, this slim volume is the first in a series of “short books on big questions” being published by Templeton Press and Yale University Press. In this case size does matter, which may be frustrating to those who want more than a concise (read narrow?) overview of the topic. Years of thought and research, or whole books are necessarily condensed into single paragraphs, in fact sometimes even into single sentences. It all feels very much like the tip of a very big (and possibly unstable) iceberg.
Because of its complexity and potential for controversy, Does Altruism Exist? really needs to be read deeply and preferably discussed/debated with others. It would be excellent as the basis of a semester-long graduate-level discussion seminar.
Have you read it? What did you think?
Series: Foundational Questions in Science
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 13, 2015)
Disclosures: This book review was based on a copy of the book I purchased. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.
Today, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. March is also Women’s History Month. It seemed like a perfect day to pay tribute to Anna Botsford Comstock.
(Photograph from Library of Congress archives)
Anna Botsford Comstock was a literal pioneer, born in a log cabin in western New York State on September 1, 1854. She was also a pioneer in many other ways. She was one of the first female students at Cornell University, starting in November of 1874. She was one of the first four women to be inducted by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society founded in 1886. Later she became the first woman Professor at Cornell University, in Nature Studies.
Anna had many talents. She was an artist. Early in her career she learned wood engraving and she illustrated many of her husband’s entomology textbooks. Her work was exhibited at the 1893 Exposition of U.S. Women Painters and is still cited by scientific illustrators today. She also was interested in literature and poetry, and wrote a novel that sold well. In addition to writing, and scientific illustration, she was an editor, a teacher and as well as arguably, a scientist. Her thesis for her Bachelor of Science degree was on “The Fine Anatomy of the Interior of the Larvae of Corydalus cornutus.” She eventually became part of the Nature Study Movement, and wrote and taught about natural history.
Anna Botsford Comstock’s most monumental book, Handbook of Nature Study, was self-published in 1911 because no publisher was interested in a 938-page book on nature study. Ironically, the book no one would publish is still in press and still popular. It has gone through at least 24 editions and has been translated into 8 languages. Anna’s work led her to be called “the mother of the nature study movement” and to be inducted into the National Wildlife Federations’ Conservation Hall of Fame.
Anna Botsford Comstock is a perfect fit for this year’s theme for International Women’s Day: Make It Happen!
What does Anna Botsford Comstock have to say about ants in Handbook of Nature Study?
”Very many performances on the part of the ant seem to us without reason; undoubtedly many of out performances seem likewise to her. But the more understandingly we study her and her ways, the more we are inclined to believe that she knows what she is about; I’m sure that none of us can sit down by an ant-nest and watch its citizens come and go, without discovering things to make us marvel. “
Why did I choose to honor Anna Botsford Comstock ? Actually it is a personal story. I was introduced to Anna while I was a graduate student at Cornell University. The entomology building that I worked in was named after her and her husband, entomology professor John Henry Comstock. The fact her name was included on the building intrigued me and I wanted to find out more about her. Not many college campus buildings in that area are named after women. I later found out that a dorm at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is also named after her.
As I discovered more and more about Anna Botsford Comstock, I began to realize what a special person she was. She had a positive impact on many of the people who met her, and also on the generations that followed. For example, in her biography of Rachel Carson, author Linda Lear reveals Rachel Carson’s mother read and was inspired by Anna Comstock’s nature writings. In turn, she passed her interest in nature to her daughter Rachel, who went on to write the highly influential book, Silent Spring.
Have you ever seen ants carrying or dragging bird feathers?
Sometimes they even carry feathers that are much larger than themselves.
It also not unusual to see feathers on or in ant nests. See, for example, this cool photograph of a Pheidole oxyops nest with feathers from Flickr.
Seeing these made me curious. Why do ants collect feathers? Why do feathers end up around their nests?
It is very likely that different ant species may collect feathers for different reasons. A quick search of the Internet and books about ants offer some plausible suggestions.
1. To Obtain Moisture
Mark Moffett found Diacamma rugosum ants in India decorate their nests with feathers during the dry season. The feathers collect dew drops in the early mornings, which the ants can then drink and share with nestmates.
He also proposes that the dead ants spread around outside the nest might also serve for dew collection.
(Moffett, M.W., Adventures Among Ants, page 119 and Moffett, M.W. 1985. An Indian ant’s novel method for obtaining water. National Geographic Research 1 (1), 146-149.)
2. To Obtain Food
James Trager rightly suggests on the Ant Blog that foraging workers carry feathers home because they (the feathers) may have small residues of bird tissue or fluids that the ants eat.
Here are some Solenopsis xyloni workers stripping the remaining dried tissues from a clump of wing feathers of a dead bird.
3. Anting by Birds Leaves Feathers Behind
Another likely explanation for bird feathers around ant nests is that birds have been known to flop on ant nests or even pick ants up and rub the ants on their feathers. This behavior is known as “anting.” It is thought that birds interact with ants, at least in part, to remove parasitic lice, ticks and and possibly microbes. It is likely that anting birds might leave feathers behind on the nests, particularly if the birds are molting.
This brings us back to the possibility of the ants collecting feathers for food, because at least some feathers may still harbor lice, mites, or small ticks if they fell off the bird recently.
I have witnessed Forelius ants pulling a feather into a nest entrance myself, but it doesn’t seem very clear how frequently ants collect feathers. It might be a relatively rare phenomenon or it might be fairly common.
Have you ever seen ants collecting feathers? What about ant nest “decorated” with feathers? What do you think about it?