Showing posts with label Agriculture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agriculture. Show all posts

Ante Hominem

Aphid farm
Ant tending to its aphid flock
Photo by Max Westby, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license
If you enjoyed any of the animated feature films centered on insect colonies made since 1998, you are in for surprises below. No matter how much they anthromorphised their characters, none of films came close. In fact, in the case of ants, even the word 'anthropomorhic' would seem to be backwards.

Earlier posts here have looked at the origins of agriculture in various contexts, and the implications of the competing theories. One thing the theories all have in common is the starting assumption, of course, that humans retain all the credit. All the archaeological and genetic evidence though has nothing on my theory (playful conjecture) that we could and may have picked it (and much more) up from ants.

The eusocial insects exhibit close models of any of the fundamental structural templates of human society, barring religion (a telling exception for another day). Ant colonies are organised around division of labour (or castes), agriculture, livestock herding, tribalism and even warfare, complete with suicide bombers, chemical weaponry and mercenary forces. What is more, they have been at it for far longer than us, about 5000 times longer. Hence the title. All of that takes communication that is so sophisticated that we are still unraveling its intricate mechanisms. But without scientifically understanding the intricacies, any curious Cro-Magnon human could have come across these ideas as he sat under a tree in deep thought, got distracted by and followed an industrious trail scurrying by.

An observer can readily infer division of labour – ants with different roles are all different sizes, often even different morphology and colour. Even if you naively assume the animals carrying all the food shipments are entirely different from those attacking usurpers, the organisational principle is clear inasmuch as they all cooperate towards deliberate common goals.

Leaf cutter ants Ants growing fungus

Leaves being carried
Photo by Jim Webber serve as a substrate for the fungus farm
Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center via Flickr

Agriculture too is plainly visible in some species – huge parades carrying pieces of leaf laminae into a tunnel where fungi are meticulously cultivated on them and harvested. All the coincidence you need is to pass by right after an animal has disturbed an ant hill. Or, you could be the animal that disturbs it. When you peer in, if they are not harvesting fungi, you might find them rearing scale insects to gather honeydew off their backs, which is uncannily analogous to us milking cattle.

Their ancient demonstration lessons are not limited to organisation of the collective. Ants also use tools. I do give us credit for enough intelligence to have stumbled across this one all on our own. That is why this one is not on the list above. After all, tool use is known among corvids, pachyderms, cetaceans and simians, all of whom are larger and easier to observe. We could have learnt it from any of them!

(As an aside, tools used to be on the hallowed list of things we proudly displayed laminated and framed on our walls - things that separate us from animals. Despite what you may have learnt at school, tool-use came off that list long ago, followed by the likes of empathy, fairness, laughter, self-awareness and memory. At that last one, the animal far exceeds what is expected of average humans. I do not add qualifiers such as ‘far’ lightly. Go ahead, check the link. I dare you to retain your pride intact.)

Weaver ants with larvae
Weaver ants using their own larvae as a tube of glue
Photo by Ria Tan via Flickr under a Creative Commons license
But ants are one up in tool-use too – wait until you hear what their tools include. Some species use their own young as machines of sorts! Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) use the silk from their larvae as the binding material for their elaborate woven nests. And they do not take just the silk to where it is needed. The picture above is the best licensed version I could find, but National Geographic has the money shot here. That is an ant that just brought a larva back from the nursery and is wielding it with pin-precision to extrude silk and fasten leaves together. Raise your hand if that does not shatter your own hermeneutic paradigm of natural ‘order’, whether based on the Aristotelian scala naturae or the Hindu-Buddhist conception of Saṃsāra.

To Arrive Where We Started

Man moves. Without migration, the history of mankind would have been a blip in the Pleistocene epoch, and the epoch would not have that name. And yet, once we settled, subsequent migration has always brought conflict in its wake. Once a people get attached to a piece of land, they take to seeing all who arrive after them as usurpers. The attitude is familiar to anyone who has as a child fought over a trifle - invariably one side cites the fact that they found or used it first as a pre-emptive trump.

It is not saying anything new to remark that in post-millennium political landscapes in all parts of the world, political constituencies thrive on taking and propagating that myopic view of migration and immigrants. In some cases though, the pairing of the complaining destination population and the group of hopeful new arrivals is pregnant with irony.

Inspecting immigrants entering America

circa nineteenth century,
Source:The Wellcome Library via Europeana
Creative Commons License
...and in the twentieth.
Source: U.S. National Archives via Europeana

Germany, just as other countries in Western and Northern Europe continues to see polarising discourse on immigration, assimilation, integration, ‘multiculturism’ and other sundry ‘-tions’ and ‘-isms’. Not everyone uses so many words, but the conflicting sides each stem from set worldviews concerning expectations, responsibilities, prejudice, promises, roles, culture and every such thing.

The debate descends into a chicken-and-egg stalemate. In the case of Germany and Turkey though, to speak to those who know only the language of who-saw-it-first, one only need look further back in time to stumble across shudder-inducing irony. Overwhelming DNA evidence is now confirming a picture of early migration in the region. All indications are, that not only are a majority of modern Europeans descended from a wave of new arrivals (c. 7000 years ago) from Anatolia who dominated the earlier indigenous population, those arrivals also brought with them the knowledge of farming. Listen to the narrative as told with a view of current borders: agriculture came to Germany with Turkish immigrants, who then settled there and replaced much of the then hunting-gathering population of Germany.

Wildebeest Migration
The Face of (Wildebeest) Migration (in Profile)
Photo by Ganesh Raghunathan, under Creative Commons Licence via Flickr

Another face-scratchingly gigantic irony lurks in the fears that Chinese immigrants uniquely inspire in the West. When I read of the widespread notion that the China’s rapid progress is built on top of technological secrets stolen from university research labs and replicated back home, I sigh. The concerned suspicion not only extends to tuition-paying students that universities need, but transfuses prejudice to much larger contexts. Consider this from an article in Foreign Policy: “The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven't cracked the nut on how to innovate yet.” The language that another commentator uses in the Business Insider to counter that view is, if anything, even more telling: “Does anyone in their right mind think the Chinese people are any different than the Japanese or any other human society? Don’t worry. The Chinese will ‘crack the nut’ too.” Future tense.

I sigh because I seem the only one to remember from primary school when I was taught a long list of inventions that took longer to make their way from the Chinese heartland to the rest of the world which then marvelled at how they ever managed without those gadgets for centuries. I am weaker than the temptation to reproduce the list in part. The enterprising folk invented: the flush-toilet, porridge, printing, brandy, bells, whiskey, wheelbarrows, kites, compasses, crossbows, calendars, oil drilling, fishing rod, whips, helicopters, mechanical clocks, hot air balloons, parachutes, the iron plough, relief maps, suspension bridges, umbrellas, water pumps, seismographs, and arguably many more such besides the more commonly known silk, paper, abacus, gunpowder/fireworks/matches and, of course, china (ceramics). Talk about freeloading, violating patents and piggy-backing your technological revolutions in the distant wake of pioneers!
Ming dynasty mariner's compass
Diagram of a Ming dynasty mariner's compass
via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, property rights were codified much later and intellectual property recognised as such relatively recently, but that does not detract from the fact that the timing was more convenient for some regions than others. The concept of stealing has been doubtless known to mankind ever since we fought over scarce meat that a few had hunted for many. Any ancient society could have prevented the stealth of ideas - penalties were much more deterring back then. That it did not occur to them is a sign of virtue. Imagine trying to assess today the benefits of learning of farming or paper just a bit earlier from a foreign visitor.

1562 Map of America ("Hold that compass still!")
via Library of Congress

Patterns of migration often show complex interdependencies and cross-flux of values, with the new arrivals sometimes bringing in priceless wealth of knowledge and ideas that may help the receiving population leap-frog great strides on the path of human progress. Irony aside, the moral is that migration, much like travel, is good for innovation and progress. People meeting new people is like fertility treatment for the birth of ideas. Peace-time movement is rarely the same as a horde of have-nots invading upon a group of gullible haves, sneaky alien parasites leeching off every last drop of the bounty that attracted them. If we must look to population interaction in nature rather than history to shape our expectations for human societies, parasitism is a curious pick from a whole continuum of cases. Symbiotic organisms depend on the mutual benefits and often co-evolve into fitter forms. Many parasites do the host no discernible harm. Think of your school days when the word 'bacteria' put you in mind of fearsome disease-inducing pathogens. Whereas we now know that human physiology would be inconceivable without the trillion bacteria we host. Imagine a bag of skin that carries far more bacterial DNA than the human kind viewing an approaching bacterial colony with prejudiced suspicion.

Old School

Much of what we (25 and over) learned in school is now moot.

Makes me wonder how schools cope with the lag in updating textbooks in the Information Age. Even the most advanced teachers who largely dispense with texts in favour of videos and such cannot hope to keep up with students who follow science blogs. I imagine schools turning into battlegrounds – at least those that have teachers like mine who encouraged students to challenge them in class. And if you think I am exaggerating the issue, let us take stock of the magnitude of what has changed.

Religion may have led to settlement and necessitated agriculture, rather than the other way around. That is a big one. For all the militant atheism supposedly sweeping the world, it seems we might need a second look at religion after all. To understand who we are and where we come from, we examine how we progressed from a gloriously natural animal existence to the present. It is profoundly central question - what came first? Did the need to transcend our physical existence to seek a higher spirit give rise to the first fixed building or did the discovery of cultivating a food surplus finally allow us to settle down?

You might want to sit down for this next one. I often goes after E, never mind where C is. And this is not even a new finding. Turns out, there are – and have always been – far more words that flout that rule than otherwise! English teachers around the world - yes, including English English teachers - just never bothered to check. Many, I fear, still continue to refer to it while helping students to spell better. Imagine the shock they get when they leave school. Even Harry Potter was stumped, which is some consolation.

ChampagnePool-Wai-O-Tapu rotated MC
Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu, near Rotorua, New Zealand © Christian Mehlführer, Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Life arose in the sea, we were told and always thought. It certainly added to the awe I felt during pre-dawn strolls along sea shores; apart from its sheer vast spread and unfathomable depths, it was also where we came from. Evidence since uncovered suggests that the first living cells may have emerged in geothermal pools on land. The open ocean just got a little less enigmatic.

Pluto used to be planet. There were nine. But this one I expect they must have corrected even in texts by now.

(Update: We have far more than five senses, including thermoception, proprioception, equilibrioception, and nociception. And oh, glass is back to being consdered boringly solid. I remember being fascinated to hear in class that window panes of old churches get thicker at the bottom because it 'flows'.)

From revisionist accounts of history and alternative economic models to genuinely new insights in physics and biology, there is plenty more that is rapidly changing in the human ken. I just hope teachers learn some way to deal with it.