April and Taking Pleasure in Little Things
At the conclusion of March’s reflection, I asked the question Gnat asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: What sort of insects do you rejoice in where you come from? An enthusiastic reader responded by sharing her fascination with ants: I have always admired ants! They are hard-working, cooperative, social, and not-to-be-deterred! They seem to embody the spirit of The Little Engine That Could: "I think I can... I think I can”...and they DO!!! I can lose a lot of time just watching their ceaseless endeavors.
Her delight in ants delighted me and reminded me of another lover of ants, E.O. Wilson. I had just viewed a documentary of his life, E.O.Wilson - Of Ants and Men, available on PBS. A true southern gentleman and world-renowned entomologist who changed the world by introducing the concept of biodiversity, Wilson has had a lifelong fascination with ants which he calls these little things that run the world.
What most amazed him throughout his life is their mysterious instinct to build complex societies. He tells the story of one massive abandoned leaf-cutter ant nest. Brazilian scientists decided to find out its extent, so they poured concrete into it, and it took ten tons! After excavating it for weeks they discovered “a labyrinthine web of underground highways, gardens, and garbage dumps”. Wilson said the scale was breathtaking, “It was a metropolis, a Manhattan of the insect world.” The nest led him to wonder how ants, with a brain the size of a pinhead, organize such astonishing and intricate societies.
This wonderment led him to explore connections between human and animal natures and eventually to introduce the discipline of sociobiology which teaches that human behaviors, emotions, and morality evolved just as hands and eyes and stomachs evolved – just like evolution in the insect world! This was quite a controversial subject in its day and evoked protests even within the scientific community. One protester came to the podium where he was speaking and dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head! It seemed okay to protesters and “the establishment” to apply his thinking to animals but not human beings. Eventually his ideas were widely accepted and paved the way for other scientists to study human nature from a biological perspective!
Fully aware of the destruction human beings are capable of, Wilson shared his take on our current ecological problems this way, “We are a dysfunctional species. We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and on top of all that we’ve developed godlike technology, and that’s a dangerous mix.”
Despite this awareness, Wilson remained optimistic throughout his ninety years, and looking back mused that, rather than traveling the world lecturing people about saving the planet, he chose instead to share the joy of the natural world. I think this reveals a profound understanding of human behavior and the way we are more motivated by beauty and love than commands and threats of losing our precious ways of life. His concluding comment was a real epiphany for me as a way to elicit humanity’s cooperation in addressing our many ecological crises. He said, “This isn’t some moral obligation, it’s a pleasure!”
What motivates you to care about our rare and precious planet?
(Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash)