Even the World of Ants Has Its Suicide Bombers

Renowned bug expert Edward O. Wilson talks about ants' social (and sometimes antisocial) behavior.

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Edward O. Wilson, known as the "father of sociobiology," has won the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzer Prizes for general nonfiction. But the five-decade Harvard professor isn't taking a break anytime soon. Alongside coauthor Bert Hölldobler, he has followed up their 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Ants, the leading scientific study on the insects, with The Superorganism, on ants' collaborative nature. He's also writing a novel that includes—you guessed it—ants. Wilson recently chatted with U.S. News about the creatures he loves so much, discussing their eco-consciousness, their sexism, and their suicide bombers. Excerpts:

How long have you been interested in ants?

I began when I was 9. Every kid has a bug period. I never grew out of mine. What does the title of your latest book, Superorganism, mean?

A superorganism is a society whose members are altruistic toward each other and so tightly organized they together appear to be a giant organism. The most familiar superorganisms are ant colonies and societies of other insects. In addition, the superorganism is a distinct level in biological organization. Is humanity a superorganism?

Not exactly. We need a new term. I don't believe we understand ourselves well enough to summarize our condition with a certain word or phrase. Are ants better at anything than humans?

Human beings have not yet made an accommodation with the rest of life—whereas ants, whose history dates back more than 100 million years, have achieved that balance, mostly by specializing among the 14,000 known species in terms of where they live, what they eat, and how they relate to other species. Each, for the most part, has acquired a balance with prey, food, and space, halting population growth before it crashes. Ants have reached some degree of sustainability, while humans have not. We're not going to last 100 years if we don't start settling down. What shouldn't we learn from ants?

Do not go to ants for wisdom or moral behavior. Ants are the most warlike of all of the creatures on Earth. Their colonies fight one another routinely, even though there is mostly harmony inside the colony. Also, all ants that make up the working colony are female. Males are tolerated only during a brief period when they are raised to mate with new queens. Half the human population would probably not like that, especially since the males are disposed of after the mating season.

You've argued that ants show us how evolution works at a group level, shaping the development of social mores like self-sacrifice and altruism—in other words, morality. That seems fairly controversial.

There is a lot of evidence now that morality has a hereditary basis and that it arises by natural selection. It gives an advantage to a family as a whole and equally well to the group to which the altruistic individual belongs. Darwin himself made that point—that upstanding people increase their own genes because the groups that they benefit by their moral behavior succeed, compared with those that are amoral and therefore socially disorganized. So why does this idea seem so new?

In correctly emphasizing culture as the dominant trait of human beings, we have tended to neglect the role of instinct. The deep study of human instinct by biologists has only begun. What is your favorite cocktail-party anecdote about ants?

One is a kind of ant in the rain forests in Asia and South America. They blow themselves up by contracting their body muscles violently when near enemies. They're the suicide bombers and the extreme altruists, as far as their colonies are concerned. They rupture, and the body sprays poisonous liquid. That's [aimed] chiefly against other ants—the greatest enemy of ants is other ants. Does that sound familiar? The other story I would tell would be the recent discovery of ants that walk underwater. They hunt for insects in insect-eating pitcher plants. They go underwater and hunt insects that the pitcher plant has caught. These two stories illustrate just how far social behavior has taken the ants over the 100 million years.