It’s a not so small world, after all

Historian and science writer Charlotte Sleigh’s Ant is not just a book on the zoology of ants. There is as much of us humans in it as there are details about the tiny creatures.

As someone fascinated by the big questions of life, Charlotte’s interests have been wide-ranging from science and philosophy to sociology and literature. These seemingly divergent disciplines are quilted together in Ant, one of her two books in the ‘non-cuddly animals’ series, the other one being Frog. The book chronicles the last several hundred centuries of human fascination with these highly social insects.

Going by size, ants may well be Nature’s miniatures. But as a species they have been marvellously successful. Myrmecology – the study of ants – tells us why.

Ants are highly social and complex creatures. They like to chatter a lot. At times those chatters lead to squabbles. They insist on living in societies and detest being loners. They trust team effort and collective intelligence. But they also occasionally cheat!

In other words, they are a lot like us, destined to dominate wherever they live.

While some of this uncanny resemblance with humans may be true, we also see ants this way because, as Charlotte says, those are the traits that are most familiar to us. “Scientists get ideas about what to study, and how to understand things, from the culture that surrounds them,” she says.

There is always the risk of reading too much of our own thinking into what we observe in the natural world.

“In the early days of communism, ant scientists thought that studying ant societies might tell them how and why humans capitulated with anti-individualist regimes.  In more recent years, inspired by the rise of the computers, scientists have looked at ants to better understand data transmission.  They would not have thought to do that until computers came along,” she explains.

This anthropic gaze on ants is not recent.

The ancient Greeks saw marching ants as a model for their armies to emulate.

In the days of British colonialism there were writings justifying slavery and subordination by pointing out its natural following in the ant kingdom.

More recently, the invasively spreading colony of Argentine ants in California was frequently used as a roundabout metaphor for the rising numbers of illegal human immigrants in the southern parts of the United States.

With several such examples, the “modern ant,” Charlotte writes in her book, is as much a culturally constructed image as it is zoological.

Understanding such fascinating cross-currents between culture and science has been among Charlotte’s favourite research themes. She is also passionate about communicating science to public.

At the University of Kent, she teaches students on the greater role that science communication plays in the public sphere, in forging public opinion on big scientific projects and how they impact our lives and economy.

Charlotte is on her maiden visit to India under the British Council’s ‘Science & Beyond’ public lecture series, under which she is doing a lecture tour of several cities.

“Through my travels, I am learning about India’s sense of excitement about development, and the value of international academic exchange.  I am learning from the kindness of the people I have met. I am having a great time, and I am especially enjoying the food.  I think I will go home a few pounds heavier than I arrived,” she says.


Dr. Charlotte Sleigh, Lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent will be holding a public talk session on ‘Electric monks and pathology biscuits: What is science communication and why does it matter?’ on January 29, 4 p.m. at the Anby Plaza Conference Hall of IISER near the College of Engineering Thiruvananthapuram. The event is part of British Council’s ongoing Science & Beyond public lecture series.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 5:29:37 AM |

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