THE IMPACT OF MYRMECOLOGY ON RACISM, ROBBERY, MONARCHY, AND
Cesare Baroni Urbani
University of Basle, Institute for the Protection of Nature
(NLU) – Biogeography, Neuhausstrasse 31, CH-4057 Basel,
an interesting essay for Chronicle of Higher Education Joan
M. Herbers (1) manifests her unease in using the terms ‘slave’
and ‘slavemaking’ while describing ant behavior.
The reasons of her embarrassment
are explained as follows:
1. ‘By appropriating the
terminology of slavery, we scientists are in fact perpetuating
2. ‘The possibility that
using racially loaded metaphors is inherently damaging to ourselves
and to our work’.
Slavery, however, is known also
among wholly white or purely black human communities and I don’t
consider it as a necessarily racist term more than exploitation,
injustice, and other analogous ones.
But, how big is the risk to be
caught in the biological fallacy while using the term slavery
while studying ants? Could somebody justify human slavery because
a similar behavior with the same name exists under perfectly
natural conditions in ants, or, could somebody think that students
of Polyergus life admit slavery just because they describe
it among ants?
Actually, the study of ants uses
also other anthropomorphic and potentially equivocal terms,
like ‘queen’ and ‘soldier’.
Everybody agrees to avoid anthropomorphism
in entomology and this results e.g. in the customary use of
words like nest and digestive system instead of house and intestine.
To keep the distance from anthropomorphism,
Dr. Herbers stresses differences between human and ant slavery
(as there are between human and insect queens and soldiers)
and rejects also the use of the scientifically more correct
term ‘dulosis’ since it is derived from the Greek
‘doulos’ (= slave) and should hence suffer of the
same implication as slavery. A scientifically better term for
insect queens also exist (gynes) but there is no valid alternative
term for the insect soldier caste.
However, nobody ever objected
the use of names such as brain or courtship when referred to
an insect in spite of the differences with the human homonyms.
To avoid even the etymological
references to slavery implied in the term dulosis, Dr. Herbers
proposes a new term for ant slavery: ‘leistic behavior’,
from the Greek ‘leister’ (= pirate) (2). Unfortunately,
from the same Greek root, Auguste Forel (1848-1931) already
created the better and widespread term lestobiosis to characterize
thieving behavior of some Diplorhoptrum species.
It is true that after the classical
‘go to the ant’ (Proverbs 6:6-8) there were a few
more examples of improvised sociologists and demagogues taking
ant behavior as a model for human societies, but these examples
had limited success and not a single practical application.
They are destined to remain among the curiosities of history
of human thought.
would hence tolerate the use of the word ‘slavery’
among ants although dulosis should be preferred.
In this context one might hypothesize
also the reverse procedure, i.e. could terms introduced to describe
ant behavior be applied to humans as well? For instance, do
social parasites exist among humans or are they restricted to
hymenopteran societies? Personally, I think I know some of them
and have no scruples in addressing them with the myrmecological
term but I must confess that love for good food and good wines
already developed in me a beginning of physogastry.
Herbers, J. M. 2007. The loaded language of science. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i29/29b00501.htm
(2) There seems to be some confusion about
the Greek word from which the term is derived. Herbers gives
for pirate “leistos”, the ancient Greek word for
prey, while pirate is either “leister” (Odyssey),
or “leistor” (Odyssey; Nicandrus). But for robber
or pirate there is also the better known, related word “lestes”
(Atticus, Herodotus, Thucydides, a. o.) from which lestobiosis