Does nature’s economy depend on war?

First, I’ll level with you: the vast majority of the kind of stuff for which this blog was created is new to me. My research history is nearly entirely composed of molecular work, with a few months of honey bee behavior thrown in at the start of my PhD over this past summer. Most things I’m encountering in Panama are, like the biodiversity of the rainforest on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), exciting, new, confusing, and, in general, require the formulation of very complicated ideas in order to understand. This, I suppose, is my first attempt to think “outside of the lab”, and couple some of things I’m observing with grander concepts in evolutionary biology and tropical ecology. Here, I want to explore an idea that was inspired by an army ant raid observed on a night walk on BCI.

A favorite question I get from folks interested in honey bees, and, indeed, a hugely important question to which no single answer exists, is: how do social Hymenoptera form the most complex, adaptable societies we see in nature? I usually make a comment about how they’ve “gotten rid of men” and are therefore without the complications we humans have had for as long as men have been in power. In fact, there’s no real “power” in the hive; the queen appreciates heightened importance but the concept of control doesn’t really apply here. The former isn’t a particularly relevant (or good) answer, and, moreover, it’s effectively contradicted by the existence of males with eusocial Isoptera societies, but it’s a favorite because I’m simultaneously able to bring up the matriarchal nature of insect societies, which I endlessly admire, while addressing my general association of community instability with male presence. War, murder, destruction: I’ve always taken these as the byproducts of the antagonistic nature of pleiotropic sex hormones like testosterone, as the same compounds that drive human mate-seeking and defensive behavior have been re-purposed to influence violence in seemingly nonadaptive ways. But maybe violence is not a marker of instability, and maybe war, or predisposition to war, is not intrinsically human.

“War is a genetic imperative,” writes EO Wilson, in a single line that, if believed, undoes my general assumptions regarding human conflict being, well, human. This quote made more sense as I gained some perspective from watching all-female army ants raid a lesser colony on BCI. I saw soldiers carrying brood back to their home colony to be devoured, and helpless defenders being ripped apart by surrounding combatants. What initiated this attack? Were the army ants so starved for natural resources that they needed to destroy another colony? Was this just a territoriality battle playing itself out, and the brood capture was just a lucky find, or, maybe, do these things just happen without preemption? I thought back to late-summer robbing behavior in honey bees, to hostile colony takeovers, to what I think of as “permanent death,” or the end of a genotype that unites an insect society. I’m wondering if, regardless of species or sex, predisposition to violence is shaped by ecology. Here’s the big question: are natural environments dependent on war, raids, colony takeovers, and other forms of communal or personal violence as mechanisms of population and resource control? This would give war an ecological relevance, and, if the overall maintenance of certain habitats or niches depend on conflict between inhabitants, predisposition to conflict will be selected for and passed on to future generations. Maybe male aggression, the basis of the overwhelming majority of worldly conflict, has echoes in evolutionary history, is a runaway trait based on conflicts that are depended upon by the grand scheme of environmental balance.

Someone, argue with me. I don’t yet know enough to move this idea outside of a philosophical realm.



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