Insect Altruism – Have The Insects Got It All Wrong?

-Antony Ho
Would you feel comfortable with the idea of voluntarily exploding your entire body on the off chance that by doing so you would be able to protect your home, maybe a bit like a “good” terrorist?
 Probably not… But a carpenter ant would.
Suicidal death is not uncommon in eusocial insects. In fact it’s a norm within their societies – their so-called duty. Over millions of generations, social insects have constructed a reliable system, helping their society function – something, which we, as humans, have also sculpted for ourselves since the start of civilisation.
For every human on earth, there are an estimated 20,000,000 insects, of which a whopping 80% are social insects: ants, termites, bees and wasps. It is clear from this figure alone that social insects have constructed a hugely efficient system amongst themselves…but have we, the humans, got it all wrong?
Altruism is defined as an impartial and selfless concern for the well being of others. From a
superficial evolutionary perspective, this seems counterintuitive. Why would an individual want to risk their life out of choice, which will essentially prevent their genes being passed on?
 Humans however are not as altruistic, whichever aspect you look at them from.
Pure altruism simply does not exist in us – it is not in our nature. In most cases, human altruism can be disputed with a few simple counter arguments. Something as simple as offering your seat on a bus to an old lady, a seemingly selfless act, could arguably be said to be an act of selfishness. This is because humans treasure social status and a feeling of self-worth.
Do you ever get “that feeling” after doing a huge favour for somebody?
That is what you long for. In this case, helping out the old lady makes us feel good about ourselves and more importantly, demonstrates our social merit to our peers. People will see your actions and they will judge you to be a good person – you would have achieved that short-term feeling of self-worth.
 Of course it is not to say that humans never, commit to an altruistic act in a moment of instinct. For years, evolutionary psychologists have suggested that altruism towards strangers may be a redundant trait. In an article, by Steve Taylor, it humours the idea that humans ancestrally lived in small groups in which they were genetically related to. Humans, thus acted on instinct to help out others, as it benefitted their own survival and hence the survival of their offspring in due course. Obviously, modern societies no longer live in small tribes of extended family with the same mentality, but we impulsively behave as though we are, helping out the ones we are close to, sometimes.
It is this impulsiveness, which ultimately leads to acts of suicidal altruism by social insects; a behaviour, which has evolved over millennia. But why…?
It’s more or less common knowledge that the honeybee that will sting you, as you walk up to Bedford library, would probably die a pretty gruesome death; losing organs and all… But from the bee’s impulsive suicidal point of view, there was a point to the death. The sting would not only release venom, but an alarm pheromone calling other workers to its aid to help defend it. The bees that do turn up would potentially follow the same fate – if you happen to be unlucky…
Kin Selection provides an explanation for this seemingly pointless behaviour. By protecting individuals in the colony that are highly related to the stinger, the genes that the bee has failed to pass on when it dies will be passed on to the next generation via the
queen bee, to which the worker bees tend to be related to.
Could there be a fundamental, distinguishing factor between humans and social insects, which ultimately dictates their individual actions? The human brain is proportionally the largest brain, as it stands in the current era, of discovered species. Disregarding proportions, an ant brain only has about 250,000 brain cells, whereas a human brain has 10,000 million; it would take a colony of 40,000 ants to collectively make up the size of a human brain. So maybe insects lack the cognitive ability, to even think in a selfish manner. Humans on the other hand, have the ability to develop emotional attachment with an individual that is not ‘related’ to them, potentially leading to altruistic acts. This as you can imagine, would be unlikely with social insects. The fact that they share some sort of genealogy within those from their colony would possibly be held in higher regard to them in comparison to those who do not – in essence making them unwilling to work or protect another colony to the same extent.
Back to the initial question, have we got it wrong…? According to world leading expert on ants, Edward Wilson says no. From a moral aspect, ants are simply undesirable. Wilson explains that during battle, they eat their injured.
Wilson says, “Where we send our young men to war… ants send their old ladies.”

Maybe we were right all along to be selfish; to act altruistically on those special occasions where we were feeling obliged to help thanks to our conserved sense of morality and emotion.

-Antony Ho
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