Friday 8 May 2020


I'm listening to E.O.Wilson reading his book Advice to Young Scientists. Which is about the only talking book I could get immediately through Borrowbox. Or rather it was the first book I trawled up as possible reading from their not-infinite archive. You have to wait for months to snag any of Bill Bryson's stuff, for example.

E.O. Wilson has been a huge presence just off in the wings as I have been a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. of science. The reason why I washed out of the Genetics Department in 1977 with a crappy degrees was because I had willfully ignored the the syllabus and curriculum and pursued the then barely existent vocation of evolutionary biologist. In the mid-70s, the genetics syllabus was really quite thin with a mix of a) crossing bacteria and drosophila and counting the numbers of different types of offspring b) a pretty tired rehashing of 1930s observations about the colours of the land-snail Cepaea nemoralis and the peppered moth Biston betularia. DNA sequencing, and all the data it generated was a next decade thing. In 1975, EOW published Sociobiology - the new synthesis his mighty compendium of evidence that there was a genetic component to behaviour: not only in ants [the Wilson bailiwick] but also <shock> in people. It caused a huge stir in America and ripples in Ireland and I may have been the first person in the country to read devour the book from cover to cover.  Written by an entomologist but ranging wide over the plains animal kingdom in search of cooperative behaviour, it sang for butterfly me. I followed the book's references out to the library in UCD to find and absorb the original papers on social behaviour and altruism by JBS Haldane, WD Hamilton, GC Williams. I wrote a long review of the book and the wider field and circulated it round the department where it caused not a ripple of interest except from a slightly off-kilter post-doc called Terek Schwartz. Sociobiology didn't make me a Nasty by blowing my mind out of its very narrow and privileged rut. There no useful future in writing people off because of their real or supposed genetic deficits; it's a call to work hard for the dispossessed . . . because (to use the rather empty slogan of the current government propaganda) we're all in this together. Oppressing the dispossessed make them more likely to aspire to rob our telly.

In Harvard, where Wilson was teaching, Sociobiology caused a huge shit-storm. The leftist students and academics, led by Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin denounced their colleague for the sin of genetic determinism and wrote an open letter to the New York Times. For them, and it is obvious that neither of them read the book with the same care and attention as me, Sociobiology fuelled the belief that straight white males were naturally Top Dogs and blacks were condemned by their genes to suffer from sickle-cell anaemia, heart disease . . . and stupidity. My pal P, who had been in U Chicago at the same time as Lewontin before his translation to Harvard, was tickled by the fact that the great socialist had two listings in the Chicago phone book: one for himself and one for his children.

But back to Uncle  Ed's advice to young scientists. He encourages his readers to have a lot of ideas and explore them scientifically. How do you get ideas? But being awake! . . . rather than sleep-walking through life. Pay attention to the world around you. "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny!'" - Isaac Asimov. Wilson is an entomologist he spends a lot of time looking at ants. Ants don't live forever and sometimes they peg out in the nest. In many species there is a caste called undertaker ants who pay attention when one of their sisters die and carry the corpse out of the nest where it can be return to earth without smelling out the nest. Wilson saw this happen for years as he concentrated on other aspects of ant behaviour. Then he asked how do the undertakers know that annie ant is dead? Because, like, scientist, he floated a hypothesis based on his deep knowledge that ants are chemically sensitive - they follow each other to rich sources of food, for example. He reasoned that the undertakers are probably cuing in on a volatile chemical produced naturally by the decay process.

Hypothesis? Test! He ordered up a long list of chemicals which he knew or surmised were involved in ant-rot. He dabbed minute quantities of these in the nest in turn and observed whether undertakers reacted. After many dead ends he found that oleic acid and its esters were potent triggers for the undertaking industry. Not molecules like cadaverine putrescine [prev] which really smell deathly hallows to us. He even essayed a tiny prank by dabbing a living ant with oleate and watching her being unceremoniously removed from the nest with a her legs waggling in the air. As a volatile, the oleic acid eventual dispersed and she'd be allowed back to her regular labours. I couldn't track down this study in the published literature but there's a pretty close replication here.

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet
and only later works like a bookkeeper. 
E.O. Wilson

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