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Anthropomorphism: A Peculiar Institution

Should we rethink the parallel drawn between “slave-making” ants and human slavery, and other such oversimplifications of animal behavior?

By | January 1, 2012

image: Anthropomorphism: A Peculiar Institution Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2011

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, JULY 2011

Insects do much of what people do: they meet, mate, fight, and part with what resembles love or animosity. Beetles care for their young and wasps engage in horrific battles. Yet they do these things in stunningly different ways from humans, accomplishing similar goals without any of the same means, lacking vertebrates’ large brains and a complex system of hormonal signals.

That insects don’t need a big brain to do big things forces us to think harder about what is required to evolve complex behavior. Going beyond the simplistic view of insect life in human terms is at the heart of my new book, Sex on Six Legs.  We can’t take the easy way out and assume that a dragonfly is jealous of a rival or that a mother earwig is sad when her offspring leave the nest.

Or at least, we shouldn’t. But, undeterred, people have told anthropomorphic stories of vice and virtue about insects for centuries. Nowhere is this connection stronger than with ants.

Though many fables depict them as industrious and cooperative, ants have a dark side. A handful of species exhibit behavior that is strikingly similar to that of human enslavers: one type of ant will raid the colony of another species and steal its larvae and pupae, rearing them and consigning them to a lifetime of forced labor in the raiders’ nest. These ants have attracted a great deal of human attention; nineteenth-century observers were fascinated with slave-making ants, and made overt analogies to the human slave trade.

But should we be calling the practice “slavery” at all? Joan Herbers, a scientist at Ohio State University, has questioned the wisdom and accuracy of the name, given its obvious connotations. At public lectures, she often is asked about the parallel between ant and human slavery, a parallel she decries. She urges abandoning the metaphor and terminology entirely, because of its emotionally loaded overtones. “How,” she writes, “can we (overwhelmingly white) scientists casually talk about slave-making ants, with implicit messages of power, inequity, and subjugation, without recognizing that our very language is a powerful deterrent to recruiting descendants of slaves to appreciate our scientific work?”

Reaction to Herbers’s objections has been lukewarm at best among biologists, although many recognize the social biases she identifies. Some deplore the encroachment of political correctness; one commentator said, “Using the word ‘slave’ doesn’t condone slavery. A word is just a word.”

Another problem with dubbing the raiding ants “slave-makers,” however, is that it gives an incorrect view of the ants’ behavior, which is actually more akin to a kind of parasitism, with the so-called slave makers acting more like exceptionally free-roaming tapeworms. The survival of the “enslavers” depends upon another organism. But instead of traveling passively from one hapless victim to another, as some parasites do, the slave-making ants take matters into their own six legs.

Viewing the interaction as parasitic not only sidesteps the terminology melodrama, it opens up other interesting questions. Herbers and her colleagues have examined variation in raiding ant species and the species they exploit. Borrowing language from pathology, the researchers categorize the “virulence” of different raiding species. Just as anthrax is more virulent than athlete’s foot, a more virulent ant parasite kills a larger proportion of the adult ants at the nest it raids.

Herbers also found that the interaction between victim and parasite was different in different places, with the enslaved ant colonies in some locations behaving more aggressively towards the initial scouts sent out by the raiding parties.

The idea that the victims could defend themselves against the raiders wasn’t given much credence until recently, and it’s tempting to speculate that this lack of understanding sprang from people clinging too tightly to the slavery analogy. Slave rebellions are risky and rare, but it’s commonplace to imagine a parasite, like a worm inside the gut, and its target continually evolving ways to attack or defend against each other.

Of course, considering slave making as a form of parasitism gives rise to the unsettling thought that, by the same token, we are a kind of slave to our own pathogens. But that is a concern for another day.

Marlene Zuk is a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, where she studies the evolution of mating behavior and communication in a variety of animals, mostly (but not exclusively) insects. Read an excerpt of Sex on Six Legs.

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Avatar of: manuel_t_l

manuel_t_l

Posts: 1

January 2, 2012

I applaud a staunch evolutionist such as Dr. Zuk arguing for more precise use of language in scientific publishing.  I assume that space constraints on her article prevented her from pointing out that this argument has been made for over 25 years by other evolutionists, perhaps most eloquently by Richard Lewontin.  Lewontin has a series of essays cogently stating the dangers of applying terms derived to describe human behaviours and actions to animals and plants.  These dangers range from the risk of (un)consciously applying human values to other organisms [or, in turn, justifying abhorrent human behaviour as somehow "natural"] to the risk of the words themselves limiting our understanding of other species.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 2, 2012

I applaud a staunch evolutionist such as Dr. Zuk arguing for more precise use of language in scientific publishing.  I assume that space constraints on her article prevented her from pointing out that this argument has been made for over 25 years by other evolutionists, perhaps most eloquently by Richard Lewontin.  Lewontin has a series of essays cogently stating the dangers of applying terms derived to describe human behaviours and actions to animals and plants.  These dangers range from the risk of (un)consciously applying human values to other organisms [or, in turn, justifying abhorrent human behaviour as somehow "natural"] to the risk of the words themselves limiting our understanding of other species.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 2, 2012

I applaud a staunch evolutionist such as Dr. Zuk arguing for more precise use of language in scientific publishing.  I assume that space constraints on her article prevented her from pointing out that this argument has been made for over 25 years by other evolutionists, perhaps most eloquently by Richard Lewontin.  Lewontin has a series of essays cogently stating the dangers of applying terms derived to describe human behaviours and actions to animals and plants.  These dangers range from the risk of (un)consciously applying human values to other organisms [or, in turn, justifying abhorrent human behaviour as somehow "natural"] to the risk of the words themselves limiting our understanding of other species.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 3, 2012

See also Bonnie Spanier's wonderful book "Impartial science. Gender ideology in molecular biology" (IUP 1995) for an excellent analysis of how language and terminology can obscure fruitful lines of scientific enquiry.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 3, 2012

See also Bonnie Spanier's wonderful book "Impartial science. Gender ideology in molecular biology" (IUP 1995) for an excellent analysis of how language and terminology can obscure fruitful lines of scientific enquiry.

Avatar of: Alice Gorman

Alice Gorman

Posts: 1

January 3, 2012

See also Bonnie Spanier's wonderful book "Impartial science. Gender ideology in molecular biology" (IUP 1995) for an excellent analysis of how language and terminology can obscure fruitful lines of scientific enquiry.

Avatar of: Heather Buechel

Heather Buechel

Posts: 2

January 6, 2012

I have the opposite reaction to the last paragraph of this article.  Rather than us being a slave to our pathogens, I see the next logical step of the parasitism argument as human enslavers are the same as ant enslavers.  Call a 'free roaming' parasite a parasite.  Look at any of the literature from that (not so long ago) time of American slavery.  The enslaved people were not even viewed as human to rationalize the practice.  We give ourselves waaaaay too much credit, I think, for being self aware.

Avatar of: agelbert

agelbert

Posts: 50

January 6, 2012


Anything that gives scientists a guilt trip or reminds them that experimenting on living creatures may be cruel must be eliminated from the the thought processes of researchers. Such quaint and antiquated terms like ethics, conscience or humane behavior have no place in the brave new corporate scientific world where absolutely anything can be done to a "mammalian model" (forget the ants - how many scientists were concerned when ants were ground up for formic acid over a century ago?) for the sake of increasing human health and longevity.

It's wrong, folks. Yes, science can be done without the meat cleaver or the "small pox blankets". It requires patience, love for the ecosphere and humility about the abysmal ignorance that modern science still wallows in with regard to biochemical interactions.

With modern nano sensing tools, diseases can be studied and tracked in target populations without deliberately infecting a segment of said populations.

But our scientific community would have to actually believe that hurting "lesser" earthlings was wrong first. They would have to disdain any clever attempts to justify cruelty and ridicule ethical behavior by claiming we are trying to anthropomorphize our thought regimen in regard to "good science" and "valid experimentation techniques" (As if the track record of deliberately infecting humans for scientific purposes wasn't ongoing, albeit secretly).

No, deliberate infection of a living organism is wrong. This just creates a population of scientific researchers that will, for a price, experiment on humans too. When you get used to hurting living things for knowledge and profit, you eventually will be willing to "try something" on the homeless and/or the poor humans that "nobody cares about" (translation - they don't have access to good lawyers or police protection). Don't pretend that you won't cross that line. Life is LIFE!

We are part of this planet. It's time we started acting like it.

Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 1457

January 6, 2012

There are a lot of meaningful analogies when different organisms are compared.  The term 'legs' as applied to insects is also an anthropomorphism.  The same term is used with reference to spiders, although we know that the legs of a spider, taken collectively, are also analogous to the 'hand' of a human (that is, used for holding things, not just for locomotion).  I think the most important lesson is not that our language needs to be corrected, but that language, and semantics, as essential and inescapable as they are, are always limiting.  Learn the limitations; you will never escape the traps inherent in any symbolic language.

Consider the use of the term 'seta' to avoid an anthropomorphic application of 'hair' to describe arthropod microstructures.  Yet, a 'seta' is just a hair in a different language.  Even the rigorous application of 'scientific' Latin cannot save us from the limitations of language!

Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 74

January 6, 2012

Toddling off to feed my enteric bacteria colony here.
Now, what would they like from me?!
A bit of nougat? Or would they prefer some more substantial fare?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

I have the opposite reaction to the last paragraph of this article.  Rather than us being a slave to our pathogens, I see the next logical step of the parasitism argument as human enslavers are the same as ant enslavers.  Call a 'free roaming' parasite a parasite.  Look at any of the literature from that (not so long ago) time of American slavery.  The enslaved people were not even viewed as human to rationalize the practice.  We give ourselves waaaaay too much credit, I think, for being self aware.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012


Anything that gives scientists a guilt trip or reminds them that experimenting on living creatures may be cruel must be eliminated from the the thought processes of researchers. Such quaint and antiquated terms like ethics, conscience or humane behavior have no place in the brave new corporate scientific world where absolutely anything can be done to a "mammalian model" (forget the ants - how many scientists were concerned when ants were ground up for formic acid over a century ago?) for the sake of increasing human health and longevity.

It's wrong, folks. Yes, science can be done without the meat cleaver or the "small pox blankets". It requires patience, love for the ecosphere and humility about the abysmal ignorance that modern science still wallows in with regard to biochemical interactions.

With modern nano sensing tools, diseases can be studied and tracked in target populations without deliberately infecting a segment of said populations.

But our scientific community would have to actually believe that hurting "lesser" earthlings was wrong first. They would have to disdain any clever attempts to justify cruelty and ridicule ethical behavior by claiming we are trying to anthropomorphize our thought regimen in regard to "good science" and "valid experimentation techniques" (As if the track record of deliberately infecting humans for scientific purposes wasn't ongoing, albeit secretly).

No, deliberate infection of a living organism is wrong. This just creates a population of scientific researchers that will, for a price, experiment on humans too. When you get used to hurting living things for knowledge and profit, you eventually will be willing to "try something" on the homeless and/or the poor humans that "nobody cares about" (translation - they don't have access to good lawyers or police protection). Don't pretend that you won't cross that line. Life is LIFE!

We are part of this planet. It's time we started acting like it.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

There are a lot of meaningful analogies when different organisms are compared.  The term 'legs' as applied to insects is also an anthropomorphism.  The same term is used with reference to spiders, although we know that the legs of a spider, taken collectively, are also analogous to the 'hand' of a human (that is, used for holding things, not just for locomotion).  I think the most important lesson is not that our language needs to be corrected, but that language, and semantics, as essential and inescapable as they are, are always limiting.  Learn the limitations; you will never escape the traps inherent in any symbolic language.

Consider the use of the term 'seta' to avoid an anthropomorphic application of 'hair' to describe arthropod microstructures.  Yet, a 'seta' is just a hair in a different language.  Even the rigorous application of 'scientific' Latin cannot save us from the limitations of language!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

Toddling off to feed my enteric bacteria colony here.
Now, what would they like from me?!
A bit of nougat? Or would they prefer some more substantial fare?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

I have the opposite reaction to the last paragraph of this article.  Rather than us being a slave to our pathogens, I see the next logical step of the parasitism argument as human enslavers are the same as ant enslavers.  Call a 'free roaming' parasite a parasite.  Look at any of the literature from that (not so long ago) time of American slavery.  The enslaved people were not even viewed as human to rationalize the practice.  We give ourselves waaaaay too much credit, I think, for being self aware.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012


Anything that gives scientists a guilt trip or reminds them that experimenting on living creatures may be cruel must be eliminated from the the thought processes of researchers. Such quaint and antiquated terms like ethics, conscience or humane behavior have no place in the brave new corporate scientific world where absolutely anything can be done to a "mammalian model" (forget the ants - how many scientists were concerned when ants were ground up for formic acid over a century ago?) for the sake of increasing human health and longevity.

It's wrong, folks. Yes, science can be done without the meat cleaver or the "small pox blankets". It requires patience, love for the ecosphere and humility about the abysmal ignorance that modern science still wallows in with regard to biochemical interactions.

With modern nano sensing tools, diseases can be studied and tracked in target populations without deliberately infecting a segment of said populations.

But our scientific community would have to actually believe that hurting "lesser" earthlings was wrong first. They would have to disdain any clever attempts to justify cruelty and ridicule ethical behavior by claiming we are trying to anthropomorphize our thought regimen in regard to "good science" and "valid experimentation techniques" (As if the track record of deliberately infecting humans for scientific purposes wasn't ongoing, albeit secretly).

No, deliberate infection of a living organism is wrong. This just creates a population of scientific researchers that will, for a price, experiment on humans too. When you get used to hurting living things for knowledge and profit, you eventually will be willing to "try something" on the homeless and/or the poor humans that "nobody cares about" (translation - they don't have access to good lawyers or police protection). Don't pretend that you won't cross that line. Life is LIFE!

We are part of this planet. It's time we started acting like it.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

There are a lot of meaningful analogies when different organisms are compared.  The term 'legs' as applied to insects is also an anthropomorphism.  The same term is used with reference to spiders, although we know that the legs of a spider, taken collectively, are also analogous to the 'hand' of a human (that is, used for holding things, not just for locomotion).  I think the most important lesson is not that our language needs to be corrected, but that language, and semantics, as essential and inescapable as they are, are always limiting.  Learn the limitations; you will never escape the traps inherent in any symbolic language.

Consider the use of the term 'seta' to avoid an anthropomorphic application of 'hair' to describe arthropod microstructures.  Yet, a 'seta' is just a hair in a different language.  Even the rigorous application of 'scientific' Latin cannot save us from the limitations of language!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 6, 2012

Toddling off to feed my enteric bacteria colony here.
Now, what would they like from me?!
A bit of nougat? Or would they prefer some more substantial fare?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 7, 2012

It appears that a coinage of a new term is warranted here. Nomenclature as the first step in Science, brings in precision & universality of meaning. Scientific glossary must be value neutral. These values of science predate the fancy term Political correctness. Humans in 21st Century must not subscribe to compusion, humiliation, degradation, dehumanization etc. These are components of "Slavery". But the context too matters. In infancy of telecommunications, one way communication for important announcements used to be called "Master-Slave" intercoms. No one took an offence, since the shop floor manager was the Master; blue collar workers were slaves; and mainly the safety issues were announced. Pending coinage of precise terms, general terms ought to be used with clarifications. The term 'Parasite' can be used to arouse emotions. If obtaining nourishment from other animal is the meaning, then a breastfeeding child also will be construed as a 'periodic ectoparasite'. On the other hand, in the example of ants, there is no ecto or endo parasitism. Will it be proper to construe this as a variety of parasitism? In that case, all canines hunting the herbivores will also be branded as 'parasites'. I feel we ought not to be politically correct at the cost of scientific correctness. If one type of ants is raiding other and consigning them to forced labor is indeed slavery, Prima Facie. If it is a mechanism in ants, are we objecting the practice of slavery or the term ''slavery"? I think, rather than debating political issues, it will be fair and proper to coin a value neutral word to the practice in the ants. Only then comparisons with other varieties of Co-speciation will be possible.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 7, 2012

The term "parasite" is in itself problematic. Many of our "parasites" have contributed to our evolutionary history and, when not present in excess, to our general health by helping to fine-tune our immune responses. It is now generally accepted that the difference between "parasites" and "symbionts" is not as clear-cut as was once believed.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 7, 2012

It appears that a coinage of a new term is warranted here. Nomenclature as the first step in Science, brings in precision & universality of meaning. Scientific glossary must be value neutral. These values of science predate the fancy term Political correctness. Humans in 21st Century must not subscribe to compusion, humiliation, degradation, dehumanization etc. These are components of "Slavery". But the context too matters. In infancy of telecommunications, one way communication for important announcements used to be called "Master-Slave" intercoms. No one took an offence, since the shop floor manager was the Master; blue collar workers were slaves; and mainly the safety issues were announced. Pending coinage of precise terms, general terms ought to be used with clarifications. The term 'Parasite' can be used to arouse emotions. If obtaining nourishment from other animal is the meaning, then a breastfeeding child also will be construed as a 'periodic ectoparasite'. On the other hand, in the example of ants, there is no ecto or endo parasitism. Will it be proper to construe this as a variety of parasitism? In that case, all canines hunting the herbivores will also be branded as 'parasites'. I feel we ought not to be politically correct at the cost of scientific correctness. If one type of ants is raiding other and consigning them to forced labor is indeed slavery, Prima Facie. If it is a mechanism in ants, are we objecting the practice of slavery or the term ''slavery"? I think, rather than debating political issues, it will be fair and proper to coin a value neutral word to the practice in the ants. Only then comparisons with other varieties of Co-speciation will be possible.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 7, 2012

The term "parasite" is in itself problematic. Many of our "parasites" have contributed to our evolutionary history and, when not present in excess, to our general health by helping to fine-tune our immune responses. It is now generally accepted that the difference between "parasites" and "symbionts" is not as clear-cut as was once believed.

January 7, 2012

It appears that a coinage of a new term is warranted here. Nomenclature as the first step in Science, brings in precision & universality of meaning. Scientific glossary must be value neutral. These values of science predate the fancy term Political correctness. Humans in 21st Century must not subscribe to compusion, humiliation, degradation, dehumanization etc. These are components of "Slavery". But the context too matters. In infancy of telecommunications, one way communication for important announcements used to be called "Master-Slave" intercoms. No one took an offence, since the shop floor manager was the Master; blue collar workers were slaves; and mainly the safety issues were announced. Pending coinage of precise terms, general terms ought to be used with clarifications. The term 'Parasite' can be used to arouse emotions. If obtaining nourishment from other animal is the meaning, then a breastfeeding child also will be construed as a 'periodic ectoparasite'. On the other hand, in the example of ants, there is no ecto or endo parasitism. Will it be proper to construe this as a variety of parasitism? In that case, all canines hunting the herbivores will also be branded as 'parasites'. I feel we ought not to be politically correct at the cost of scientific correctness. If one type of ants is raiding other and consigning them to forced labor is indeed slavery, Prima Facie. If it is a mechanism in ants, are we objecting the practice of slavery or the term ''slavery"? I think, rather than debating political issues, it will be fair and proper to coin a value neutral word to the practice in the ants. Only then comparisons with other varieties of Co-speciation will be possible.

Avatar of: mynah2012

mynah2012

Posts: 3

January 7, 2012

The term "parasite" is in itself problematic. Many of our "parasites" have contributed to our evolutionary history and, when not present in excess, to our general health by helping to fine-tune our immune responses. It is now generally accepted that the difference between "parasites" and "symbionts" is not as clear-cut as was once believed.

Avatar of: sitaramamv

sitaramamv

Posts: 69

January 8, 2012

It works both ways. If we use a 'human' descriptor for a biological entity or behaviour and find it objectionable, we must also object to using very defined words for gross  descriptors. Consider the use of words like molecular gastronomy or even molecular cardiology. If it is wrong the describe electrons as sycophants of the atomic nuclei, it is equally wrong to presume that neuroeconomics exists. While we are sensitive to political correctness, we should also be sensitive to pseudoprecision where none exists.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 8, 2012

It works both ways. If we use a 'human' descriptor for a biological entity or behaviour and find it objectionable, we must also object to using very defined words for gross  descriptors. Consider the use of words like molecular gastronomy or even molecular cardiology. If it is wrong the describe electrons as sycophants of the atomic nuclei, it is equally wrong to presume that neuroeconomics exists. While we are sensitive to political correctness, we should also be sensitive to pseudoprecision where none exists.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 8, 2012

It works both ways. If we use a 'human' descriptor for a biological entity or behaviour and find it objectionable, we must also object to using very defined words for gross  descriptors. Consider the use of words like molecular gastronomy or even molecular cardiology. If it is wrong the describe electrons as sycophants of the atomic nuclei, it is equally wrong to presume that neuroeconomics exists. While we are sensitive to political correctness, we should also be sensitive to pseudoprecision where none exists.

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