Animal Wise: “the ants come home with us”
If you read enough animal ethology (the study of animal behavior), you will find yourself not only amazed at the complexity of animal thought and emotion, but you will be equally amazed at how utterly (absurdly?) cautious scientists can be about calling animals thinking and feeling beings.
In the face of what most of us would consider incontrovertible evidence of conscious and situational decision making—a consciousness inseparable from feelings—scientists have learned, as one woman put in Virginia Morell’s book Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (2013), ”to be careful.” Acknowledging those thoughts and emotions can land an ambitious scientist in professional hot water. Many of them, legitimately concerned about their reputations as non-sentimental and “objective” researchers, have practically given themselves double hernias to stress to their colleagues that what they are finding could still be the result of preprogrammed instinct. Can’t be too sure, you know?
Some, thankfully, place intellectual integrity ahead of peer approval and professional advancement. Some are so convinced that what they are witnessing when they study animals is evidence of emotive cognition that they refer to their subjects as “persons.” The most compelling example of professional convention-breaking comes from the English scientist Nigel R. Franks. What makes Franks’ convictions about his subjects’ status as thinking and feeling creatures noteworthy is that he’s not studying chimps or dogs or parrots—animals most commonly associated with the possibility of advanced cognition–but ants. Little brown ants. As Franks sees it, the ants he has spent decades studying possess more than just sentience (which is enough to warrant moral consideration), but they use it to teach other ants how to behave. When Franks published this claim in a leading journal, the famous zoologist E. O. Wilson condescendingly called it “a charming metaphor.”
If you have read Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, or Marian Stamp Dawkins—or even Steven Wise or Bernard Rollin— there’s not much in Animal Wise that will strike you as original. The book’s value, however, is in Morell’s reportage of scientists at work. Through this boots-on-the-ground approach, we discover that Franks, instead of killing his ants (which can live for five years) when their work in the lab is finished, takes them home and keeps them in his garage. Morell writes that Franks and his wife “safely truck the ants in their petri dishes into shoeboxes and take them home. They store the colonies in their garage and care for them, replenishing their supplies of food and water. Their garage now holds so many shoebox ant-condos that Franks said, blushing, ‘We certainly can’t get the car in anymore. But I like it that the ants come home with us.’”
Now that’s charming.
Tomorrow: the hidden dilemma in Nigel Franks’ work with ants.