Anthropomorphism, Irritation, Ethology

There are several ways to view insects and their behavior. The Pearls Before Swine Comic Strip below illustrates two of them.

Pig has a romantic and anthropomorphic view, assigning human motives and emotions to the behaviors of the ant. Anthropomorphism is not useful to scientists because it is a poor predictor of future behavior. Often anthropomorphism is misleading, a gross misinterpretation of the insect behavior. Assuming that insects possess the same emotions and motivations as people (in the absence of evidence that they do) can create an interesting narrative that is difficult to support by observation.

Anthropomorphism often creates false narratives that are then used to naturalize theories of human social interactions. The Aesop story of the industrious ants, storing food for the winter, while the chirping grasshopper sings and plays all summer is great for supporting a social narrative about human labor and the necessity of saving. However, it misses the biological adaptations of the grasshopper that allow grasshoppers to be successful in ways that differ from ants.

Rat holds a different view of insects. Rat views insects as irritating interlopers into the human sphere- powerless objects to be annihilated. Easily irritated by life in general, Rat takes pleasure in stomping on the ant and Pig’s anthropomorphic dreaming in a single act. Rat also captures a human view that insect life is cheap and of little consequence. Many people (although probably not the readers of this blog) share the view that insects are disgusting, irritating and the world is better off without them.

Scientists try to be dispassionate and objective in studies of insects and their behaviors. In scientific studies of insect behavior, accurate descriptions of the behaviors are a key to analysis. Part of the goal of insect behavior studies is the creation of models that improve our ability to predict what an insect will do in response to environment and stimuli. Scientists often view their insect subjects with wonder and amazement, not for their human attributes falsely assigned, but for the uniqueness of insects and the solutions that insects have evolved to solve their everyday problems.

The scientific study of insect behavior has been productive and has generated new ideas about social interactions and communications. All ants are social in the highest sense. All ants live in social groups, share a common nests and share the rearing of the offspring. Ants have developed unique adaptations for communication and social organization. Ant communication through their environment is a useful model for many human communications through our social media. If we move beyond the extremes of romanticizing insects or attempting to annihilate them all, we can learn a lot from insects.


Pearls Before Swine by Stephen Pastis

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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