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The Real Alternative

Saving the Earth with unsavory science?

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English: Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Michael Clark, PhD

The other day I saw a documentary on TV about the sociobiologist and environmental spokesperson, E. O. Wilson. So intrigued by this video, I dug into our public library to try to find it. Regrettably, it wasn’t there, but I did find another DVD about E. O. Wilson called Lord of the Ants.

Now don’t get me wrong, I care about the environment just as much as the next person. And Wilson seems like a congenial fellow fighting for a good cause—namely, saving the Earth from mankind’s destructive activities.  But oh, my God. While watching this otherwise enjoyable DVD, there were a few scenes I just couldn’t believe.

Here’s the first one.

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 1 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

In this sequence, Wilson demonstrates how fire ants vigorously defend their turf. He disturbs their nest to purposely irritate them. Worker ants suddenly emerge, mad as hell. Wilson puts his hand on top of the angry ants, and in about a second, it’s covered. He’s now getting stung by the ants, which he can only tolerate for a moment or two.

Okay, all very interesting. But what surprises me is how Wilson, with a casual smile, hurriedly wipes the ants off his hands. I’m no expert but I think that if I wiped a carpet of ants off my hand in a second or two, I’d mangle them pretty badly. Not necessarily kill but most likely mutilate the poor devils before they fell to the ground.

Now, some might think that ants don’t really matter. After all, they’re just tiny insects, right? Well, this film argues that our bitsy neighbors do, in fact, matter. They’re very much like us, Wilson tells us. And cutting edge photography and computer graphics magnify the micro environment to drive the point home. So if ants matter, why does Wilson mutilate them with a smile?

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 2 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

By now you might think I’m a fanatical bleeding heart, dead against experimental scientists. Well, before coming to that conclusion, let’s take a look at the next sequence.

Animations 2 and 3 show Wilson holding a defenseless, living ant in something that looks like a pair of metal pliers. Wilson wants to demonstrate that ants communicate through chemicals. So he’s going to literally force a chemical out of this ant’s abdomen to show that other ants will follow a chemical trail to food, even when the first ant, itself, did not leave the trail.

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 3 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

A few moments later it gets pretty sad. The test ant is showing less signs of life as Wilson prods it with some kind of science probe. Eventually, after poking away at it, and apparently damaging the abdomen, the desired chemical oozes out of the squashed insect.

Wilson spreads the chemical out on the ground and sure enough, the other ants follow its trail to the food.  Again, all very interesting. But was it really worth this disquieting scene? Remember, Wilson says that ants are quite like us.

Still not convinced this is bad news? Maybe animation 4 will convince you.

Animation - 4 - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 4 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Just prior to this clip, Wilson calls up a fumigator in the Florida Keys to ask an unusual favor. Wilson wants to fumigate an entire small island of insects! What? A naturalist and leading environmental spokesperson plans to exterminate gazillions of tiny lives?

Yes, he does. And all in the name of science.

Apparently we can learn about how larger species might recover from mankind’s globally destructive activity if we utterly destroy smaller species on an dwarf island.

So what did Wilson find? Well, a population did return after he conducted the utterly toxic experiment, but the diversity of species differed from the original mix. Basically, Wilson and his crew annihilated countless small creatures for this valuable info (sic).

Animation - 5 - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 5 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Anyone with enough elementary science and logic will recognize that Wilson’s interpretation of the experimental results reveals an unjustified leap from a tiny to a huge frame of reference.

Last but not least, Lord of the Ants includes the usual photo op with some big shots—big shots who often consume oodles of energy jetting around the globe, releasing their self-congratulatory hot air about how the rest of us should consume less. Sequence 5 shows Bill Clinton raising a glass to Wilson at a TED talk. And here’s a link to an overhead view of the Clinton’s estate: http://virtualglobetrotting.com/map/bill-clintons-house/view/bing/
I’m sure those digs really save on energy consumption!

Image - this isn't animated because the subjects are dead - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Image – not animated because the subjects are dead – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

So what I can say about this film?

Honestly, Wilson reminds me of some environmentalists I’ve encountered who don’t always practice what they preach. They can be very nice, honorable people. And I don’t dispute that sometimes cruel methods might bring about a greater good. But other times, I wonder if the ethical cost of some natural science research and teaching methods measures up to the actual benefit.

About the Author

I’m the administrator of earthpages.org and earthpages.ca. I usually like to post other folks’ articles. But every once in a while I have my own say. Read more here: michaelwclark.com

Author: Earthpages.org

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