Collected thoughts on “pirate” ants and “leistic”
I first encountered Joan Herbers’
proposed terminology for the ant behavior that most of us know
as slave-making or dulosis while reading a manuscript by one
of her former students. This lead to a conversation between
Joan and myself about the origins, use and impact of these terms.
I then sent around her essay, reprinted above, to a number of
myrmecologists to get their reactions. I here coalesce their
ideas (anonymously) with a few thoughts of my own (these mostly
in the second half).
Most respondents state in one
way or another that no one but a few dozen myrmecologists even
know of, much less care about this terminology. Accompanying
this is an expression of doubt that myrmecological terminology
has any more than a miniscule effect (if that) on social attitudes.
While this is perhaps true, as I read it, Joan’s point
is more about how insensitive social attitudes (even if they
be unconscious) come out in our terminology (even if not many
are affected by it).
Another view expressed is that
biology in general, and myrmecology in particular already has
a rather turgid and synonym-laden vocabulary, so generation
of still more synonyms should be avoided. A related point is
that the proposed term “leistic” behavior is in
essence preoccupied, though with a slight different spelling,
in the term “lestobiotic”, so that coining new terms
based on the same Greek root is potentially confusing.
Some argue that the addition
of yet another commonly recognized anthropomorphic term, “pirate”,
reverses recent attempts to de-anthropomorphize biological terminology.
Furthermore, the piracy analogy is deemed inappropriate because
it is even more removed from the ant behavior than is the slavery
analogy. More than one goes on to point out that piracy is hardly
free from its own “psychosocial baggage”. The recent
romanticizing of pirates in the film industry cannot alter the
fact of the blatant violence and sheer, frightful meanness of
pirates. Joan argues elsewhere that it is unlikely that pirates
will object to this new terminology, but their victims and anyone
sympathetic to them certainly might, putting it on a par with
A point touched on in several
responses that I find important is that even if the slavery
terminology is indeed insensitive or offensive or might even
put off descendents of slaves from entering the field of behavioral
biology, changing to the piracy analogy does nothing to effect
real change. The fact that large groups of humans are under-represented
in science has far more to do with antiscientific attitudes
and poor educational institutions and practices at the grade
school level than with virtually unknown, if insensitive scientific
terminology. Summarizing: Okay -- Avoid, maybe even change loaded
scientific terminology, but far more important is to strive
for improvements in science education at all levels.
I did a little research on the
Greek-derived words dulosis and dulotic. These words do not
exist in Greek, except perhaps among Greek myrmecologists. The
classical Greek words for slave and slavery are, respectively,
doulos and douleia, and the myrmecological terms might fall
on the classical Greek ear as something along the lines of “slave-osis”
and “slave-otic” with the meaning about as unclear
(but perhaps referring to a disease). With due respect to Joan’s
rhetorician colleague, I think it must be admitted that the
terms dulosis and dulotic are entirely inoffensive to all but
a tiny number of people. I think most of us could accommodate
easily to avoiding the clearly loaded terms slave, slavery and
slave-making, and to using only the virtually unrecognizable
dulosis, and dulotic, parasite, host, brood thief, etc., when
discussing these ants and behaviors.
On the other hand, one person’s
comment refers to dulosis as “little better than a euphemism”.
And this brings me to a point that still has me thinking. Myrmecology
is a field peopled largely (as is most of science) by those
of our respective societies’ dominant ethnicity, by people
with professional-class social status and by those with an extraordinary
level of education. I venture to say that our state of social
privilege is so ingrained and automatic as to go virtually unrecognized
by us. It would behoove us to consider that it takes work on
our parts to relate to the history and sensibilities of those
who don’t share our inherent state of privilege. We could
well be more sensitive to the impact of our terminology on others.
Finally, since most, maybe all,
seem to agree that “pirate” and “leistic”
are unacceptable, and that “dulosis” is not really
accurate (even if virtually neutral), I have a suggestion I
like a little better than any of the several serious -- and
some silly -- terminological proposals I received; We could
call this behavior cleptergy (adjective cleptergic). The noun
has the literal meaning, “theft of work”, or the
looser translation, “theft of workers” (ergates).
I think most will agree that either meaning is suitable for
the behaviors in question and that the word cleptergy itself
seems to lack sociological connotations. Further, these terms
appear to satisfy Dr. Herbers’ goal of the creation of
sociologically neutral but accurate language for talking about
these amazing ant behaviors.