June 15, 2010

Ants Working Together. A Model for Humans?

Insect societies are remarkably coherent and suggest the best features of human social organization. Ants, termites and bees, like us, differentiate into castes with specialized roles, construct cities, organize food production and maintain military organizations. Ants, termites and humans are farmers. Cutter ant colonies harvest leaves to feed their fungal partners.

Mueller andRabeling described the remarkable features of cutter ant colonies: “The original fungus-growing ants were not leaf cutters, but debris collectors, using withered plant bits for cultivation of a relatively unspecialized mycelial fungus that retained close population-genetic ties to free-living fungal populations. Nest sizes were small, involving probably only dozens to hundreds of workers. The later evolutionary transition from debris collector to leaf cutter was accompanied by novel allocation of leaf-processing tasks to size-variable worker castes and a dramatic increase in worker number produced by long-lived queens. Some extant leaf-cutter nests are estimated to live for 10–20 years, have 5–10 million workers, and maintain 500–1,000 football-sized fungus gardens in an underground metropolis occupying the volume of a bus.”

Ant farmers have to deal with parasites and have their own version of the pest control using techniques similar to human biotechnology such as the use of bacteria to kill insect predators. For example, Panamanian leaf-cutting ants cultivate fungus gardens as a food source. A complex symbiosis has become apparent to researchers. Currie, for example, discovered that leaf-cutting ants carry colonies of actinomycete bacteria on their bodies. The bacteria assist the farming of beneficial fungi by producing an antibiotic that inhibits the growth of undesirable fungi. Currie and Clardy later isolated identified antifungal chemical, dentigerumycin. Currie revealed a complex interaction of bacteria and fungi required to digest the cellulose in the leaves.

Jones stated:” On a survey of one piece of Amazonian rain forest, social insects accounted for 80 percent of the total biomass, with ants alone weighing four times as much as all its mammals, birds, lizards, snakes and frogs put together. The world holds as much ant flesh as it does that of humans.” He reviewed Hölldobler and Wilson’s concept of an insect colony as a superorganism, single animals raised to a higher level of organization and intelligence. ” The world of superorganisms varies from dawn ants in Australia, which live in groups of a hundred or so separated only into sexual and asexual kinds, to the leaf-cutters, who cultivate fungal gardens and have millions of workers, divided into a diversity of castes, in a single colony. The whole place buzzes with information, passed on with chemical cues, taps and strokes, dances and displays.”

The ant brain is a tiny device, and yet, the will and ability to create and maintain complex social organization is stored in this highly efficient, micro-miniaturized living circuitry. Social organization is achieved by creating a metabrain from thousands of individual brains coordinated in a network using chemical signals. Investigation of the ant brain leads us to ask if the basis for human social organization is stored in an ant-brain sized nucleus in our own brain or have the “social circuits” enlarged and become more effective or less reliable? Can we become as well networked as ants? Can we achieve a high level of social organization that is stable over hundreds of millions of years?
From a computing perspective, we can admire the small brain of the bee and the ant that is capable of organizing a complex working and construction-based society that has been successful for hundreds of millions of years. In terms of social stability and success over time, a large brain is not necessarily better than a small brain. Human engineers now understand that linking a number of “small brains” into a large interconnected network is the evolutionary path of human societies. Ants perfected the social network a long time ago. Oster and Wilson described ant society in these terms: “Caste and division of labor lie at the heart of colonial organization in the social insects. What makes an ant colony distinct from a cluster of butterflies is its internal organization:

“The differentiation of its members into castes, the division of labor based on caste, the coordination and integration of the activities that generate an overall pattern of behavior beyond the reach of a simple aggregation of individuals.”

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason

June 3, 2010

Empathy and Love

Empathy is the ability to recognize the sentience and suffering in another being. Empathy is the basis of high-level altruism that does not depend on the barter principle. The ethic of empathy is the Golden Rule: do onto others, as you would have them do to you.

Empathy depends on knowing that the other person feels pain as much as you do or will feel happiness as much as you do if they are well treated. If another human is grieving, you feel their suffering and offer help. If another human is injured, you stop everything to help them and you treat their injured body with care to avoid increasing their pain. This ability to feel the experience of others in your own consciousness is one of the great accomplishments of brain evolution.

There is no doubt that more empathy is better than less. There is little doubt that empathy is one feature of human nature that competes with other more powerful and more adverse features of human nature. Empathy is not evenly distributed among humans, nor is any individual constantly empathetic towards others. Some humans lack empathy and are selfish, impulsive and do harm to others with no remorse.

The human tendency is to treat only a few other humans well, members of your immediate select group, and to be suspicious of and hostile towards everyone else. Empathy can turn on in one situation and turn off in another. Once a group establishes that outsiders are enemies, empathy is turned off and members of the group treat the outsiders cruelly as if they were non-human.

You might observe that children are naturally empathetic and that this feature of their nature can be cultivated by well informed, empathetic adults. A the same time, you will notice that children are naturally possessive, competitive, and fight often. Observant parents and teachers will realize that encouraging empathy and discouraging conflict is a challenging task that is never complete.

Love is often identified as the solution for human conflict. You might argue that genuine love requires big empathy. But, the word “Love” is fuzzy, because it refers to any and all the emotive and cognitive forces that bind people together. Love includes different ingredients such thoughts, feelings and several emotions. Love is not a single emotion nor even a coherent mix of emotions. Love is a biosocial complex inflected at different levels of intensity and meaning. Sometimes, love is just a word that fails to have much meaning.

Romantic love is temporary glue that sticks two people together and is most evident in younger people choosing a mate. Successful bonding creates feelings of contentment and a sense of long-term commitment to the partner. The essential feature of falling in love is a fascination with one other person coupled with a drive to be with them and to protect them. This exclusive focus is deviant from all other social involvements that require lower intensity attention to many people. Both lovers will tend to fell euphoric and powerful; their devotion can overcome all obstacles and accomplish wonders.

Falling in love is not a smooth ride. There are existential love problems. As soon as a couple falls in love, the freedom of each is constrained. The progression of the bond requires the exclusion of other mates and is regulated by a potentially destructive force, jealously. The lover’s problem is not letting the other person exist as a free being. As humans become more conscious and more sophisticated in their understanding of relationship, a deep paradox emerges. While pleasurable feelings, tenderness and concern tend to occur in the early stages of falling-in-love, the pleasant feelings soon diminish and are interrupted by more routine, negative feelings that emerge in the mix and will often dominate the couple’s experience. Lovers will display a variety of emotions: affection, laughing, crying, anger, fear and grief will all be displayed in the course of a romance. Jealousy is another cognitive-emotional complex that accompanies love. When you examine the experiences of lovers, you identify a big problem with empathy – it is temporary, conditional and can be replaced by conflict and hate.

The problem of freedom versus captivity continues to plague more insightful married couples and is not resolved by the marriage ceremony enforced by moral authority that insists on life-long fidelity. Women will often feel trapped in servitude and will hunger for more self-determination. Men will feel trapped and obligated to relinquish most personal choices in favor of wife and children. A person who is no longer free replaces the more desirable and alluring person with the freedom to say no to an aspiring mate.

Even deeper challenges facing couples involve the underlying assumptions of the self. Every human has an overriding sense of his or her own importance. There is prevailing sense that I am the center the center of the universe and what I believe to be true is true always and forever. When two people form an intimate, dyad they confront each other with this deeply imbedded premise. Their interactions are necessarily tense because each has the same conviction that "I am center of the universe." The primordial conflict among self-centered human beings is about whose version of the universe is the most valid.

One model of altruistic love is maternal devotion to children. The ideal mother is deeply bonded to her children, is self-sacrificing and unusually attentive to the needs of her children. While romantic love briefly contains the elements of maternal love and may lead to lead to marriage, pregnancy and life-together, the biological basis appears to be short-lived leaving the bonded couple in need of other motivations and constraints to sustain their relationship. The ideal mother attracts a supportive man and sustains his interest in the children by providing affection, sexual favors and sharing the labor of maintaining a home. The ideal mother’s love for her children tends to be less conditional and lasts a lifetime, but the love of the father or fathers of the children is conditional and may be short-term. The ideal father provides protection and support, devoting all his resources to one mother who has given birth only to his children.

Home should be the refuge where each family member feels safe but often becomes the battleground where diverging interests and experiences conflict. The family formula sent males and females on divergent paths that guaranteed little common ground, except at home, evenings and weekends. The different worlds are also full of other humans who may attractive and will often appear to be more compatible and available because they share work schedules and environments. There is no couple commitment that blocks interest in other potential mates. The search for an alternative mate and fantasies about other lovers continue daily in the minds of every happily married couple. As discrepancies in the couple's experience accumulate and conflicts escalate, the partners create distance that protects each from the other. Once the home is no longer a safe refuge, dysphoric feelings dominate and the relationship is in peril. Most humans will tolerate unsatisfactory relationships for a while, but eventually a threshold of no-return is reached and the relationship collapses. This is an avalanche effect. The timing of the avalanche is unpredictable, but once it starts to move, no one can stop it and the relationship is over.

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