Sunday, 16 March 2008

Claire and the Ants.

Science Daily and Memory Lane

Rather oddly I was reading about some research a couple of day ago that brought to mind a conversation that I was a party to way back when in the sixth form common room.

And in particular one of my favourite fellow students, a lovely lass by the name of Claire. Now Claire was a pretty typical example of the ‘trendy lefty’ type of the time. Boots, West German style army jacket, long tassely scarf and a humungous amount of badges, ‘vote labour’, ‘no nuclear power’, ‘CND’, a white poppy worn in November and ‘I support(ed) the Miners’. Which was odd as the closest she ever came to a pit were the rather cute dimples she had. Politically we were pretty far apart but we got on exceptionally well.

I remember on one particular occasion a conversation (probably in 1986) was going on about something to do with animal behaviours as an analogy for human systems. It was one of those that I’m sure to an average 6th Former seems pretty deep and meaningful but to hear now would be utterly cringe worthy.

Anyway if I recall I was reading a newspaper. It would have been the Times or Telegraph. I never really got past the sports pages therefore making the papers political allegiances irrelevant but the choice of either title I knew would enrage the Head of the Sixth Form who never let a day go by without reminding his students to buy the Guardian. I wasn't a serious politico at that age (or indeed any age although I think I do identify with 'Right' from wrong) but have always enjoyed an honest contrarian position.

Claire – Grendel!
Me – (glancing over newspaper) Yes sweetheart?
Claire – What animals do you think best represent current Human behaviour.
Me – What are you on about, ehh….Lemmings I would have thought.
Claire – Oh be serious. We (meaning Claire and her gaggle of friends) thought it might be wolves. You know picking off the weak.
Me – Sigh!! Bloody Tories, blah, blah, blah you’re just on a wind up mission aren’t you?
Claire – Well maybe. But I did think that one day we could be like ants.
Me- Oh for crying out loud…….Why?
Claire – Because everyone would be working towards a common goal. All using their different talents for the collective good. You know when ‘we’ get in…….
Me – Just as well you won’t then….

With hindsight we were both completely wrong and being quite a few years ago the transcript of the conversation may not be verbatim.

A couple of days ago I saw the results of some research undertaken by a group of scientists from the Universities of Leeds and Copenhagen which has found that ant society is not quite as altruistic as originally thought. Apparently corruption is rife as certain ants are able to cheat the system, ensuring their offspring become reproductive queens rather than sterile workers.

Dr Bill Hughes from Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences takes up the story

"The accepted theory was that queens were produced solely by nurture: certain larvae were fed certain foods to prompt their development into queens and all larvae could have that opportunity. But we carried out DNA fingerprinting on five colonies of leaf-cutting ants and discovered that the offspring of some fathers are more likely to become queens than others. These ants have a 'royal' gene or genes, giving them an unfair advantage and enabling them to cheat many of their altruistic sisters out of their chance to become a queen themselves."

"The most likely explanation has to be that the ants are deliberately taking steps to avoid detection. If there were too many of one genetic line developing into queens in a single colony, the other ants would notice and might take action against them. So we think the males with these royal genes have evolved to somehow spread their offspring around more colonies and so escape detection. The rarity of the royal lines is actually an evolutionary strategy by the cheats to escape suppression by the altruistic masses that they exploit."

"When studying social insects like ants and bees, it's often the cooperative aspect of their society that first stands out. However, when you look more deeply, you can see there is conflict and cheating -- and obviously human society is also a prime example of this. It was thought that ants were an exception, but our genetic analysis has shown that their society is also rife with corruption -- and royal corruption at that!"

Poor Claire would be mortified. Although I’m sure she would have ended up as New Labour rather than a Trot so maybe it wouldn’t come as so much of a surprise after all.


Isadora said...

:) Poor Claire.

Alice said...

Did you really read the Times or the Telegraph when you were still at school?! Wow.