How Insect ‘Civilizations’ Recast Our Place in the Universe

When looking to other creatures for signs of intelligence, insects are rarely the most obvious candidates, but as the historian Thomas Moynihan writes, it wasn’t always so.

Thomas Moynihan in Science: It is 1919, and a young astronomer turns a street corner in Pasadena, California. Something seemingly humdrum on the ground distracts him. It’s an ant heap. Dropping to his knees, peering closer, he has an epiphany – about deep time, our place within it, and humanity’s uncertain fate. The astronomer was Harlow Shapley. He worked nearby at Mount Wilson Observatory: peering into space. With help from colleagues like Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Shapley went on to “measure” the Milky Way. Their work revealed that we don’t live at our galaxy’s centre, and that there are many other galaxies besides.

A lifelong advocate of progressive causes, Shapley also reflected regularly upon humanity’s long-term future, alongside the risks jeopardising it. He was among the first to suggest, during a lecture given while World War Two raged, that humanity should learn the lesson from 1918’s pandemic and prepare properly for the next one. Instead of battling each other, he prescribed a “design for fighting” the risks facing all of humanity: declaring war on the gamut of evils, from pandemics to poverty, endangering the whole globe. (Only two audience members applauded; it appears we didn’t take heed.)

Shapley, also, was obsessed with ants. By night, he mapped the vast cosmos; by day, he studied the smaller-scale universe of ants, publishing pathbreaking papers on his discoveries during his time at Mount Wilson. Megapolises in miniature, easier to study that human societies, Shapley’s hunch was that the antheap could shed light on how life and mind emerged from inert matter as part of “cosmic evolution”.

Later, near his life’s end, Shapley could mercurially recount many entomological “episodes”. The time he abducted ants from Egyptian pyramids, storing one in a friend’s watch; the time he pickled one in vodka to the amusement of Soviet colonels; the time he accidentally smoked some, forgetting he had preserved them in his tobacco pouch. Some colleagues didn’t understand the fascination. Connecting big-picture cosmology to humanity’s destiny makes sense, sure. But connecting either with bugs seemed oddball. “Shapley’s funny”, they sighed.

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