Posts Tagged ‘E. O. Wilson’
Sorry to keep harping on Hoelldobler & Wilson’s The Superorganism. But Wilson’s section on ant evolution is so bad, so out of touch with the state of the field that I can’t help but to rant.
Both Chapter 7 (The Rise of the Ants) and Chapter 8 (Ponerine Ants: The Great Radiation) are predicated on the argument that certain groups of poneromorph ants form a clade. In defense of this assumption, Wilson writes (page 322):
…Barry Bolton has recently split Ponerinae into seven subfamilies (Ponerinae, Amblyponinae, Ectatomminae, Heteroponerinae, Paraponerinae, Proceratiinae, and the fossil Brownimyrmicinae). Still, there is no reason as yet to doubt that the assemblage as a whole represents a diversification from a single Mesozoic ancestor.
No reason, that is, except that it runs contrary to the findings of every single relevant phylogenetic study* in the past decade. In particular, there is simply no way to make (Ectatomminae + Heteroponerinae) monophyletic with the remaining poneromorphs given the existing data, and even the monophyly of the remaining groups is far from certain. Wilson stakes his claim even further in the mud on the next page:
This, then, is the ponerine paradox: a group that is globally successful yet socially primitive. The puzzle might be partially resolved if the more advanced subfamilies can be shown to be derived from a ponerine stock…but even if such proves to be the case (contrary to the opinion of systematists who consider the ponerines basically monophyletic), there likely remain diverse modern subgroups…
Who are the systematists who consider these poneromorphs to be monophyletic? None that I’m aware of. Wilson is the last one left, ossified in the same perspective he had in the 1960s. What’s even odder is that he reproduces the Moreau et al phylogeny on page 316, and it contradicts nearly all of his phylogenetic statements in the text. Did he read the figures in his own book?
As a consequence, the whole section of The Superorganism devoted to the evolutionary history of ants is muddy, incoherent, and entirely at odds with the increasingly clear picture emerging from modern studies of ant relationships.
I’m left wondering (just a little) why Alex has such a beef with Dr. Wilson. This is not the first post taking a jab at Wilson, so while Alex makes an excellent point, I’m also sensing some underlying issues here….
Eric is right there’s an issue. It is one many myrmecologists, especially systematists, have been tip-toeing around for a while now.
The short version is that Wilson is no longer at the leading edge of myrmecology. As he has fallen out of step with the practicing research community, his public ant commentary is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground, as it were. This predictably puts the current generation of myrmecologists in a bit of an uncomfortable position with respect to the community’s most public representative. Hence the underlying issues.
The longer version is this. (more…)
From an interview with E. O. Wilson:
[Q:]Are ants better at anything than humans?
[Wilson:] Human beings have not yet made an accommodation with the rest of life—whereas ants, whose history dates back more than 100 million years, have achieved that balance, mostly by specializing among the 14,000 known species in terms of where they live, what they eat, and how they relate to other species. Each, for the most part, has acquired a balance with prey, food, and space, halting population growth before it crashes. Ants have reached some degree of sustainability, while humans have not. We’re not going to last 100 years if we don’t start settling down.
I think the available evidence suggests the opposite. Ants achieved their current dominance not through finding some magical ecological balance but by driving their competition to extinction.
Consider the ground beetles. They are an older group of insects, occupying a similar soil/ground predatory role to many ant species. But this ancient group of beetles is globally most abundant now only around the periphery of the ants, filling in the cracks that are too cold, too dark, too extreme for the Formicidae. Ground beetles abound in boreal forests, along ice fields, in alpine meadows above the tree line. What’s more, those that persist in the ant-rich tropics have a more potent defensive chemistry, as if those species that didn’t retreat in the face of the ant radiation stocked up on guns and ammunition. We don’t know for certain, but the bits of evidence taken together it’s likely that the rise of the ants had a pretty significant effect on the ground beetles. This nature is more Red in Tooth and Claw than singing Kumbaya in global harmony.
I understand Wilson’s angle- that humans are destroying the ecological systems that sustain us- but surely that same point can be made without resting it on feel-good pablum without any empirical grounding.