Q&A WITH TROPICAL BIOLOGIST AND ENTOMOLOGIST MARK W. MOFFETT
(Mark Moffet and his wife, Melissa Wells. Photograph courtesy of Mark W. Moffett.)
Mark W. Moffett is a tropical biologist and entomologist who studies the ecology of tropical forest canopies and the social behaviour of insects (especially ants) and humans.
In his teens he read biologist Edward O . (E.O.) Wilson's THE INSECT SOCIETIES and years later received his PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University where he studied under Wilson.
Moffett is currently a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
He is the author of the 2019 book, THE HUMAN SWARM: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, The book explores the social adaptations that holds societies together. He also examines the tensions between identity and anonymity. How do we manage to get along with each other? How do we sustain the mega societies and enormous civilizations humanity has created? These are some of the questions the book examines.
Among his numerous accolades, Moffett is the recipient of the 2008 Roy Chapman Andrews Lifetime Achievement Award for Research and Exploration. Dr. Moffett is also noted for his macrophotography documenting ant biology.
The SEA ISLAND CREATIVITY CONFERENCE was founded and organized by Moffett and his wife Melissa on Sea Island in Georgia. Now in its tenth year, the conference has brought together Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners, and others from the Arts, Humanities and, of course, Sciences.
WHY STUDY INSECTS, PARTICULARLY ANTS? As infants we all recognize intuitively that ants show many similarities to humans, from building housing and highways to working together in collecting food and retrieving it to a home defended jointly from enemies and from other disasters.
Most people grow out of this fascination, but even as an adult, and a scientist at that, I’ve learned a lot from investigating the similarities.
That perspective paid off a few years ago when I realized that as small-brained and alien as ants are, they nevertheless are like humans in how they identify as members of a society. This resemblance is what permits the societies of both ants and humans to expand, in some cases to the millions, something impossible for most animals, which live in societies of a few dozen. Humans and ant both use a mechanism to identify members that makes possible the existence of strangers in a society.
That's out of the question among chimpanzees, for example—a chimp needs to know every single member of its society, as an individual. Finding this similarity in how ants and humans identify with a society was merely the first step in my book. As you'd expect, ants recognize their societies in a much more simplified way than do humans, whose complex identities are the bread and butter of social psychologists. And so, by the end of The Human Swarm I’ve left the ants far behind us, to explore what's known from psychology and anthropology about the role of human identities in keeping societies together and tearing them apart.
Dr. Moffett with the legendary Harvard Scientist and mentor Edward O. Wilson
WHY HAVE INSECTS BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL, MAKING UP A CONSIDERABLE PORTION OF LIFE ON EARTH? There are far more niches—ways of making a living—for insect-sized creatures than for species like us. One thing tiny ants can do is capture in all kinds of resources that humans can’t take advantage of—every scrap of energy, right down to the crumbs hiding under the kitchen sink or buried deep in the soil—and as social insects they can work in enormous numbers, simultaneously, to capture those resources. THE HUMAN SWARM, HAS A LOT TO SAY ABOUT INSECT AND HUMAN SOCIETIES. WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF A SOCIETY? Of course, the word “society” has a lot of meanings—you can belong to the high society, join the Brooklyn Historical Society, and so on. What I’m interested in are what psychologists would describe as an in-group, though an in-group of a very special sort: One that consists of more than an immediate family and whose membership persists through the generations. Societies have sharp boundaries. Transfers to another society (in humans, through immigration) are possible, but are arduous—generally anyone born into a society is expected to have grandchildren in that society, and often there’s a commitment to fight or even die for a society that you don’t see for most other kinds of groups. On this basis, various animals have societies—think of a lion pride or an ant colony.
One conclusion of my book is that people have always lived in such societies, though these originally consisted of at most a few thousand individuals spread out in little hunter-gatherer bands, and in time we came to form ever larger societies till we ended up with nations. How this transpired is a major part of my book. Yet despite its title, The Human Swarm also covers societies in general, including those across nature, from ants to apes. HOW DOES YOUR IDEAS ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF HUMAN SOCIETIES DIFFER FROM OTHERS? Well, for one thing my research indicates there was no origin—no original human society that all our present societies can be traced back to. This realization is in marked contrast from the views of some social scientists, who see societies primarily as constructs of political convenience that emerged in recent centuries. To the contrary, humans have always lived in societies, which are as basic to human existence as love and death. Of course, the form our societies has taken has shifted over time, from what originally had been mobile hunter-gatherer groups, to settled tribes and chiefdoms right up to the nations of today. Those transformations, and what made them possible (including our allowance for strangers, mentioned before) are essential parts of the human story.
IN THE HUMAN SWARM, YOU SEEM TO BE SAYING THAT COOPERATION, A TRAIT THAT MANY EXPERTS BELIEVE MADE US HUMANS THE MOST SUCCESSFUL OF ALL THE KNOWN HOMININ SPECIES, IS LESS IMPORTANT THAN IDENTITY. Not less important! But I believe that to understand human cooperation we must put our collaborations in the context of our identification to societies, with their distinct memberships. After all, a society contains a mix of all sorts of relationships, good and bad. Your worse enemy may be a member of your nation. Think about all the social discord going on within societies, where the members often do not get along. How societies stay together for the long haul is therefore a supremely important and challenging area for study. As I’ve said, at some point the differences in how the members identify with each other can tear a society apart, a difficulty that’s reared its head repeatedly throughout history.
Certainly, the cooperation that’s so remarkably well developed in our species is important to our success. But you need to understand that cooperation, as such, isn’t unique to societies—the individuals of species without societies can cooperate with each other, just as species that form societies can show all sorts of anti-social, non-cooperative behavior. To focus on cooperation alone, as sometimes happens, is to cherry pick. And regardless, the boundaries that societies impose on our social world provide a whole new level of problems when it comes to encouraging cooperation, and to managing conflict, both within and between those societies. WHAT EVOLUTIONARY ADVANTAGE IS THERE IN BELONGING TO A SOCIETY IF YOU ARE A BEE OR BONOBO SINCE SOCIETIES IN NATURE ARE RARE? One way or another, being part of a society has to yield a payoff: each individual must have a better chance of success (measured, in biology, by reproduction) than it would achieve on its own. There can be payoffs as well at the level of the groups themselves, with some societies replacing others. These payoffs can be varied. By being committed to a society in the long term, for example, members may have more success at rearing young (and even help each other at the task), at finding or obtaining food, or at driving off enemies—including outsiders of their own kind. Some species, like the chimpanzee, are invariably hostile toward outsiders, whereas others, like its relative, the bonobo, can be friendly to foreign groups. We humans lie somewhere in between those extremes. ARE THERE SOME EXAMPLES WHERE GROUPS OF ORGANISMS (OR SOLITARY ORGANISMS) COOPERATE, BUT DON'T LIVE IN A SOCIETY? Individuals can build relationships with specific others without the need for societies. Flocking birds can benefit from each other by jointly stirring up insect prey, and yet they disperse at the end of the day. Clearly an animal that bonds with a mate to raise young is demonstrating a high degree of cooperation—think of robins at a nest. Such a temporary family group, which for robins lasts until the chicks are fledged, may have been a staging point for the evolution of some societies: Should generation after generation of those offspring stay together to help each other rear further babies, the assembly that results is reasonably called a society. This situation describes ant colonies to a T, with a single queen typically being the mother of many generations of her worker “assistants. THE LEGENDARY BIOLOGIST E.O. WILSON WAS YOUR MENTOR AT HARVARD. HOW MUCH OF HIS INFLUENCE HAS GONE INTO THE IDEAS IN THE HUMAN SWARM
Like many great scientists, Ed has retained a childlike sense of wonder about the world, and combined it with an immense intellect. This pairing is very important. I first time met him was at his office at Harvard, when I was an undergrad from a small liberal arts college on my way to an undergrad course at Woods Hole, and right away I felt like I was talking to another kid. Being around him has also led me to think big, and the fact that I have retained my independence by not taking on a usual university job, with all its commitments to courses and committees, means I can focus on a project day and night for years, like writing my books. I like to think that makes up to the deficits in my own brain, compared to say, the razor-sharp mind of an Ed Wilson. On the other hand, despite my PhD, it also means I’m often perceived as outside the academic system, so I must push all the harder to have an impact. My own “take” on social evolution, differing from Ed’s efforts and those of most others, has been to investigate societies as enduring groups WHY IS WILSON, THE "FATHER OF SOCIOBIOLOGY" A SCIENTIFIC HERO IN YOUR EYES? Ed has had a hand in creating a lot more of modern biology than people realize. Not just sociobiology, but the basic study of ants, our understanding of species and systematics, the biogeography of communities, major questions in evolution, and global conservation issues. He seems to absorb whole fields faster than most people can read a book, and he has an impact on that subject every time. Thinking Big is what he does, even at [age]91.
IN RECENT TIMES, CLIMATE CHANGE LOCALLY HAS BEEN SEEN AS THE MAIN REASON FOR THE COLLAPSE OF SOME CIVILIZATIONS/SOCIETIES. BUT ARE THERE SOME SOCIETIES THAT OWE THEIR EXISTENCE TO A CHANGING CLIMATE? Societies respond culturally to changes, including in climate—those that do so effectively can flourish. In Guns, Germs and Steel and other books, Jared Diamond emphasizes how environmental change and wars can hasten the demise of societies when they fail to adapt. But what Diamond describes are really a few extreme instances of the ever-shifting nature of societies, which are as ephemeral as the bodies of their members: despite their durability, over the long term societies invariably break down. What he calls a “collapse” should be more accurately described as a fracture; all past societies have undergone a predictable sort of splintering regardless of resource scarcity or environmental destruction. Whether you consider the Maya, the Roman Empire, or a San Bushman group, no society ever vanishes, its people scattering to the wind, as the word “collapse” would seem to imply; rather, it breaks apart into smaller and generally simpler societies. ARE THERE ANY SOCIETIES TODAY THAT ARE IN FREE-FALL THAT IS NOT CAUSED BY CLIMATE CHANGE? What holds together the societies of humans (and indeed, those of ants and a few other creatures) is the sense a commonality with other members of the society. For ants, that commonality is expressed simply: the members of each colony share a scent, which serves as a kind of national emblem—any ant that smells wrong is attacked. Humans are attuned to far more diverse, and often complex, kinds of traits that “mark” our identities, from how we dress and speak and pledge allegiance to a flag right down to the details of what our fellow citizens see as morally right and how we walk and smile. By dint of these commonalities, humans can remain attached to their societies even in the face of environmental changes or threats from outsiders such as warfare or domination.
What causes societies to ultimately falter and fragment is rarely such threats per se, but rather the fact that the identities of society members come to differ over time. A society is in danger of splitting in two when its members no longer believe they belong together. That feeling has become common nowadays. Still, I would argue that Americans with different political outlooks are too intermixed across our continent for the nation to readily break up—there's no clear line of cleavage. We're stuck with each other—and probably, though things are difficult, that’s for the best. Societies, I hypothesize, have evolved to function in part through discord, and compromise; this explains the wide range of human personality types, a universal feature of H. sapiens, some of which don’t get along.
Dr. Moffett on Sea Island with Creative Conference group of 2017. Left to right: Jack Horner, the T-Rex expert who was the basis of the lead character in Jurassic Park; Moffett, Carol Guzy, three time Pulitzer Prize-winner for photography; Cédric Villani, the flamboyant Frenchman called "the Lady Gaga of mathematics" by New Yorker magazine
;Moffett's wife Melissa; Ken Perlin, Academy Award-winning animator; Natasha Trethewey, former Poet Laureate of the United States; Walter Murch, legendary film editor of "The Godfather," among others.