E O Wilson – Of Ants and Men

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In their recent episode of the VALUE: After Hours Podcast, Taylor, Brewster, and Carlisle discuss E O Wilson – Of Ants and Men. Here’s an excerpt from the episode:

Jake: Yeah. Let’s jump into some E. O. Wilson. I don’t know. Are you guys familiar with him much? I don’t know if you’ve ever–

Tobias: I know the name, but I don’t know who that is.

Jake: He was born in 1929. So, he had a really long run. He died this just like two weeks ago or so. If you’re interested in learning more about him, there’s this 2015 PBS documentary called Of Ants and Men that was really good. I enjoyed it a lot. But he grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and as a kid, I think he was eight years old. He was fishing and a spine of a fish that he caught, poked him right in the eye.

Tobias: Oh.

Jake: And ended up being blind in that eye for the rest of his life. As a kid, he really liked nature, especially, bird watching actually. But because he only had one eye, he didn’t have stereoscopic vision anymore, like birdwatching doesn’t really work as well if you only have one eye. But that led them to him– he had actually really acute vision and the one remaining eye. It became supercharged, sort of. So, he had 20/10 vision. He could see things up close really well. So, he ends up looking at the ground more and studying insects, and he really gets into insects as a kid.

I love any kind of story where someone’s weakness gets turned into an eventual strength. I think this is a really cool example of that. Anyway, his parents also divorced when he was around seven, and he was sent to a military camp apparently, because he was a troublemaker. But he figured out really early on that he wanted to study insects. He had this wondrous relationship with nature through his entire life. Even they show him wandering around out in the woods when he’s 90 years old, you just see the joy of a child on his face the whole time. I don’t know. I find it very inspiring to see people that are so authentic to themselves that way.

But anyway, he gets into what’s called myrmecology which is, I guess, the study of ants. He lists a bunch of cool facts about ants, like supposedly ants, weigh four times– If we took all of the ants on Earth and put them into a pile, it’d be 4x the weight of all the land vertebrates. There are something like 10,000 trillion ants on Earth, which is a number that boggles your minds. [crosstalk] Yeah, Wilson did. One by one. But he had this like a curiosity and a real scientific mindset that gave him lots of insights over time that actually, starting off with ants, leading then into other social complex things like the human. He could see a lot of the human condition from his study of ants, which I think is interesting. He observed that we share the desire like ants to build complex societies.

In the 1950s, he was a professor at Harvard for 40 years, and he knew that ants must have some form of communication with each other but at that time, no one knew what it was. We didn’t know how it worked. He discovered through his research, 20 different pheromones that the ants use to communicate. He basically went through dissecting ants and crushing an individual organ inside of the ant, and then seeing how the ant would react. There’s this cool thing in the documentary where you see him smearing like an S line, and then, all of a sudden, you see the ants start to route around onto that S line. So, it was like the pheromone that the ants used to lay a track to where they found food.

So, shifting gears a little bit, in Krakatoa, you guys familiar with this volcanic explosion in 1883? Supposedly killed 36,000 people. The loudest explosion ever recorded on Earth. They could hear it 5000 miles away in the Indian Ocean. It was something like 10,000 times Hiroshima. Anyway, it destroyed all life on the island but it created this novel experiment where, how do species repopulate a new niche? How do they find dominance in this fresh new area? Scientists at the time realized this was a really interesting natural experiment taking place. So, a lot of people went there to go learn, and observe, and see, well, how does nature sort of fill this vacuum that was created by Krakatoa?

Well, Wilson ends up doing his own kind of mini-version of this. He went down into the Florida Keys and he found several islands, and they put basically, these tents over them. They’re little tiny mangrove– little islands. They fumigated those islands basically, killed everything was on the island. And then, they came back and observed how does nature fill this niche– [crosstalk]

Tobias: Real nature lover, this guy. [chuckles]

Jake: Yeah. [laughs] Sometimes, you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, Toby. Come on. But it turns out that there are mathematical equations that are derivable that predict the number of species relative to the size of the island. This has pretty big implications for conservation. So, if you figure humans developing new areas and we create these little biological islands sometimes, well, the size of them actually matters a lot to how many species will live in that area and thrive, and therefore, how much biodiversity might we expect. Actually, Wilson invented the word ‘biodiversity,’ by the way.

This got me thinking about in a business context. Let’s say that there’s a new area opening up, I don’t know, cannabis, or electric vehicles, or whatever the hell du jour it is for today. But could you make the analogy that the profit pools that will eventually be available represent an island and it might then tell us how many different businesses could we expect to thrive in that size of an island? Let’s take it on one end to the extreme, how many lemonade stands could your neighborhood support? That’s probably a relatively small profit pool. That would be like a tiny mangrove island that wouldn’t support a lot of different—

But then, I don’t know, what are the five biggest industries on planet Earth? I happened to look it up. number five is life and health insurance, four is e-commerce, three, commercial real estate, two, construction, and one, financial services.

So, perhaps, those are the biggest islands if you will today, but who knows if they’ll be that tomorrow, like these things tend to turn over as well.

So, a couple of other interesting facts like, Wilson estimated that there are 10 million species on Earth and we’ve only identified like 2 million of them. So, we’re at like 20% sort of recognition of the actual total number of species, which is kind of mind boggling when you think about like– I don’t know, I feels like if you were to just guess at how many species, you’d be like, “Yeah, we probably got 90% of them at this point, right?”

Tobias: How would you know what you don’t know?

Jake: I don’t know. I think maybe like a rate of discovery or something? I’m not sure how you would know that.

Tobias: Sorry. I cut you off. Keep going.

Jake: No, that’s okay. So, Wilson also has this idea called ‘eusocial, E-U-S-O-C-I-A-L. It’s a concept where– here’s how you define it. It’s a group of individuals that live together at least two generations worth, the adults care for the young, and there’s a reproductive division of labor. It’s almost as if there’s a single super organism that operates with its own hive mind. So, we’ve discovered 19 eusocial lines, and 16 of them are insects. It happens that humans are the only primate that checks the boxes to be eusocial.

So, you can start to see how Wilson’s insights of studying ants for 50 years led him to have these observations about humans later in his career. It turns out that this eusocial approach is highly productive. Ants, and termites, and humans, they dominate their niches that they exist in. So, he started to wonder if natural selection could work, not just at the gene level which was the predominant theory, but also at the colony level as a whole. It became very controversial in social sciences. Richard Dawkins was very against it. He’s the author of The Selfish Gene, which was a much more gene-specific version. Stephen Jay Gould, lots of other people. Wilson has this kind of funny thing. He said that in reference to ants, Karl Marx was right. Socialism works. It’s just that he had the wrong species. Just funny.

Wilson also created his own whole new discipline, which is called sociobiology. The hypothesis was that behaviors might evolve in the same way that your anatomy would evolve due to evolutionary pressures. What’s crazy is that people did not want to hear that this was applied to humans at that time. Psychologists believe that we learn from culture only, there wasn’t any nature. It was all nurture, there was no nature. In fact, there were demonstrations against his classes. People came in and poured water on him in the middle of his class, picketing his class. He was a target in a big way. It’s really funny to see, because when you hear him speak and you see the things that he was writing at the time, it’s hard to imagine a more gentle-natured soul than this guy. Meanwhile, he’s like the target of all of these radicals.

But what ended up happening was that he made it safe for later researchers to explore things about human nature that now we all take for granted. He proposed this idea of group selection, also called kin selection, over not just the survival of the fittest individual, but also the survival of the fittest group and how they work together. So, evolution is operating at multiple levels, and he has this really nice quote that is cool. It’s like, “Within groups, selfish individuals win. However, groups of altruistic individuals always be groups of selfish individuals.” When you think about like sports for instance, that totally makes sense in a way of thinking about group selection. It’s really a ritualization of war.

The Iron Bowl

Jake: We think about like a college rivalry. Bill, what did Alabama and Auburn games look like in college for you?

Bill: Ah, people got shot.

Tobias: [laughs]

Jake: Literally?

Bill: Yes.

Jake: Okay. Well, that’s even more extreme then, I would guess.

Bill: Not all the time but definitely, one of the years, somebody got shot in a bar. I think the reason was I think they said that like a shot that Robert Horry hit against Chris Webber Kings. I think they said that was a worse defeat than an Auburn, Alabama defeat that had just occurred and they got shot.

Jake: [laughs] Wow, that’s wild. All right.

Bill: Yeah, it was crazy. People take it seriously down there. It’s not the base rate but there’s hatred.

Jake: Yeah, no doubt.

Bill: Fuck Alabama.

Jake: What do they call that? The Iron Bowl?

Bill: Yeah.

Jake: Okay.

Bill: I like to call it good versus evil.

Tobias: [laughs]

Jake: So, here we’re seeing tribalism expressed before our very eyes. But it kind of gets you thinking, “Which companies out there are creating a group selection? Where are they creating tribes within their customers, within their employees?” When the power of humans that eusocial element takes over, I think it can lead to some very radical outcomes. Maybe Peloton for you, Bill, is a potential idea that fits in with that.

Bill: Yeah. I think they got a little bit of a tribe thing going on. Lululemon certainly did.

Jake: One last quote I’ll give you from E. O. Wilson that I really liked. By the way, he wrote several book– Obviously, he did a ton of research but he wrote a lot. I think he want two Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction. He won whatever the equivalent is for– It’s not the Nobel Prize but they have a version of that for his field and he won that. But anyway, here’s Wilson. “The early stages of creative thought, the ones that count do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet, wide ranging, sometimes fantastical, and works like a bookkeeper.”

And I like the idea that if you want to be a real scientist about whatever it is that you’re working on, maybe getting away from specialization sometimes, and thinking a little bit broader, and having some creativity, and maybe thinking like a poet, I guess, was what he would say, might lead to some interesting insights. And then, working hard diligently like a bookkeeper about it. So, I don’t know. It resonated with me for some reason, maybe because I’m a dork but that’s– [crosstalk]

Tobias: [laughs]

Bill: Oh, dude. This motherfucker, Chase Jones. You’re not a motherfucker but you just reminded me some asshole, a ‘Bama fan killed our trees. At Toomer’s Corner, we had these old trees. This jerk, they poisoned them and killed them, and then called up the radio and bragged about. Thanks, Chase, you just ruined my day.

Tobias: There was a podcast about that.

Bill: Yeah, the guy’s a dick.

Tobias: Or, it might have been a– Sorry. Excuse me. That might have been like a Sports Center 30 for 30 or something like that. [crosstalk]

Bill: Anyway, something I was thinking about, Jake, as you were talking about the maximum amount of species, there’s Spanish moss down here or like lionfish also do this. Where I am, people really want to kill lionfish and eat them because they just destroy everything around them. Spanish moss is the same way. It just grows like this weed. I just feel like the bigger these companies get and the more influence they have over Washington, the more I feel like they’re lionfish and Spanish moss, and the less that I feel like the ecosystem can thrive. I really think that Big Business and Big Washington has just gotten too far. Now, I don’t know what the answer is other than to reduce the role of government, but– [crosstalk]

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