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Surprising Science

E.O. Wilson: There’s So Much More to Nature Than What Humans Know

In today’s featured discussion on pheromones, biologist Edward O. Wilson explains that there are massive amounts of natural stimuli that humans are not physically privy to.

Edward O. Wilson returns to the Big Think home page today as the subject of our featured Big Think interview. The storied biologist who knows more about ants than anyone else on Earth, Wilson tackles the topic of natural stimuli and how certain animals are able to take advantage of a heightened level of perception of which humans are not capable. The video of this discussion is below:

We humans tend to think of ourselves as top dog of the Earth-based species, and why not? We’ve managed to sophisticate communication through language. We’ve harnessed tools to a degree that we’ve constructed a civilization built upon gadgetry. We’ve got to the moon and back while bats, ants, and birds are confined to the limits of their ability and intelligence. Still, Wilson says we should keep in mind that there is so much more to this world and nature as a whole that we don’t understand because we’re only privy to “a microscopic section” of stimuli. We see reds, blues, and yellows but can’t pick up infrared or ultraviolet. We can’t travel or communicate via echolocation. We can pick up magnetic fields using instruments but we can’t sense them like innately to help with our navigation like birds do. We are limited by the breadth of our most basic senses, primarily sight and sound.

As an expert in myrmecology, Wilson has spent his entire life studying ants and their abilities. He explains how they are able to operate within their massive colonies by way of pheromones:

“They communicate by chemical smell and taste and they can communicate in a complex manner in this way… I and others found out that ants are communicating by pheromones and that actually they have, according to species, ten to 20 substances that they use to smell and taste in organizing their society… With those ten to 20 pheromones they use they can vary meaning greatly by how much of the pheromone they release. Sometimes they release it only in billionths of a gram to send a signal, by the context, I mean where it’s released and in what social situation gives another meaning, and in combinations, so it’s almost like sentences being formed.”

Basically, because ants need to be able to communicate among individuals within their colonies (and they don’t speak English), they utilize their senses of smell and taste to send messages to each other. Some very innate ant behavior is driven by pheromones:

An ant that’s leaving the nest and is alarmed can release different concentrations that communicate what we would call words: pay attention, pay attention, attention, attention; come in this direction; a problem, a problem; a situation; opportunity; come. And then when it gets to a high concentration, if it’s one of their alarm substances it is attack, attack, attack, anything that moves that does not have the colony smell.”

Sure, it’s not nearly as sophisticated or esoteric as expressing communal solidarity through words like “it tolls for thee,” but it’s still pretty impressive and eye-opening to cast a gaze upon nature’s many secrets hiding in plain sight. It also shines a light on just how much of the world we top dogs are missing:

“We know less and we understand less of the world around us than any person who doesn’t know the evidence can even imagine.

Wilson’s latest book is The Meaning of Human Existence.


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