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If we were wasps

If we were wasps
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First Published: Thu, Apr 07 2011. 09 37 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Apr 07 2011. 09 37 PM IST
So, some Indian tycoons are smarting from the lectures they have received on altruism from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Altruism, they sniff, is an Indian tradition. It is indeed, but Indian altruism has obviously lost its way.
May I suggest that we take some pointers from the common Indian paper wasp?
If you’ve lived in peninsular India, you know Ropalidia marginata, the paper wasp. Parents teach children to fear the sting of this orange insect and eradicate its nests from electrical sockets, latch holes and other crevices. These nests are particularly ingenious because they are made from paper that the wasp produces by chewing cellulose from plants and its own saliva.
On the face of it, self-serving humans are nothing like paper wasps, which along with their relatives, ants, bees and termites, are defined as eusocial, creatures that display the highest levels of social organization. Famed Harvard biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, who gave eusociality its first clear meaning, refers to such behaviour as “civilization by instinct” (the term was created in 1966 by a biologist called Suzanne Batra; she married her Indian botany professor, the late Lekh R. Batra, 51 years ago).
Except for two species of mole rat, there are no eusocial mammals. Wilson said eusocial creatures display a division of labour that is repeated by reproduction (though some castes may be sterile); they care for their young cooperatively; and they have overlapping generations—not unlike an Indian joint family.
I just read an evocative account of the paper wasp by India’s pre-eminent expert on the insect, Raghavendra Gadagkar of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “I have been stung dozens of times but never complained,” says Gadagkar in the latest issue of the journal Current Science, explaining why he’s studied the paper wasp for 30 years. “I guess that is what love does to you.”
Gadagkar’s enduring love has laid bare Ropalidia’s surprisingly complex life: The eusocial paper wasp displays strong streaks of individualism and boasts its own caste system. By daubing individual wasps with non-toxic hobby paint (he imports it from the US), Gadagkar showed how their “individual personalities are starkly revealed”. After years of observation, he made a list in plain English of all that wasps did and so proposed behavioural castes for Ropalidia.
These castes should be familiar to Indians. Some wasps, Gadagkar says, are “sitters”; they sit around grooming themselves, doing nothing of “importance”. Some are foragers, who spend much time away from the nest gathering food. Some are fighters, alert, aggressive individuals who respond to any disturbance within or outside the colony.
Scientists devote their lives to understanding the lives of social insects because these creatures appear to turn the Darwinian theory of natural selection on its head. If only the fittest survive, how do you explain the persistence of sterile workers who slave for the good of the colony and its queen? The answer, provided by British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton in 1963, is biological altrusim or kin selection.
In exploring what is now called “social evolution”, Hamilton evolved a rule that says an altruistic trait will spread in a population if the benefit of altruism is greater than its cost. If a bee has the option of producing one offspring or being sterile and taking care of two sisters, altruism wins the day.
Paper wasp queens, Gadagkar and his research students found, mate with up to three different males. They also found that wasp queens were frequently replaced, not only by daughters but also by sisters, nieces and cousins. “Workers who were the daughters of an overthrown queen simply continued to work as if nothing had happened,” says Gadagkar. So, the wasp broods are brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and their offspring, mother’s cousins, mother’s cousins’ offspring, even cousins’ grand-offspring of the workers who cared for them. Gadagkar observes, “I am very fond of saying that [the paper wasp] would put any Indian joint family to shame!”
In this genetic chaos, succession is remarkably clear and reflects traits familiar to humans. One of Gadagkar’s research students, Anindita Bhadra, has proved that while we who observe the wasps cannot identify her, there is indeed a successor—one who swiftly steps up aggression after the queen’s removal and is unanimously accepted by workers—and the wasps know who she is.
Now, consider how successful, modern human endeavours, whether a thriving mass transit project like the Delhi Metro or a socially aware conglomerate like the Tatas, increasingly reflect the importance of altruism and cooperation in human evolution and achievement. Aggressive, individual leadership and clear succession are equally important.
These traits are well merged in western nations. The Chinese, already successful in producing the greatest number of individuals, are learning fast.
Wilson once said, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” There is time yet to prove Wilson wrong.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 07 2011. 09 37 PM IST