Philosophical Subcategories= POLITICS; EPISTEMOLOGY:
Bees and . . . Social Theory and Organisation (Utopian Socialism?)
In our final and sixth meeting and discussion I had decided that it would be a good idea–for a sense of balance and completeness–to talk about bees generally and not just the honeybee which had monopolised our attentions hitherto:
In an incredibly informative and highly colourful 1991 book, Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw, two contemporary research entomologists, the following two brief but startling statements are made: “There are at least 20,000 described species of bee and the vast majority of these are solitary. That is, each nest is the work of a single female working alone. There is no caste or cooperating workers and each female constructs her nest and provisions it with pollen and honey without the help of others.” (page 34)
This opened up a veritable box or worms as the stimulating but controversial subject of the evolutionary role played by cooperation as compared to competition in the insect world–and by extension–the entire animal world–was discussed in earnest. I pointed out that the Russian anarchist anthropologist, Prince Kropotkin’s famous turn-of-the-century thesis of “Mutual Aid” was, whatever might be its overall merits, clearly deficient in exclusively–and extremely briefly–discussing the honeybee, in indicating the value of social and altruistic cooperation. David Dobereiner hotly disputed this but, alas, weakened his otherwise impressive thesis, by choosing only to argue by analagous appeal to the examples of higher animals and not to insects or bees.
“In the case of worker honeybees and some worker ants, the workers are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the colony. How can a gene for such altruism be passed on to future generations via a non-reproductive caste?
These questions posed a real dilemma for Charles Darwin. With his typical candour, he recognised that the social Hymenoptera might well subvert his theory of evolution by means of natural selection operating on variable, but inherited characters. In the Origin of Species he confronted this dilemma and concluded that the social insects were a special case, with natural selection operating on the colony as a whole rather than on individuals.
Social behaviour has evolved 12 times in the insects, 11 of then in the Hymenoptera. There must be some quality about the ants, wasps and bees which predisposes them to develop sociality. In 1964, the British biologist W.D.Hamilton came up with a theory which satisfactorily explains the evolution of social behaviour or ‘altruism’ in this group.” (Bees of the World, 109-110)
Now, in view of the heat that this debate continues to generate–with all its casual comparisons to T.H.Huxleyan interpretations of the “survival of the fittest”, and the naked and violent agression between both individuals and species, and, lastly (it must be admitted also), Hobbesian notions of “red in tooth and claw” Social Darwinianism, here is the detailed argument in full:
“Since the nineteenth century, it had been known that in bees and wasps, females are derived from fertilised eggs and males are derived from unfertilised eggs. We now know that the fertilization of an egg is under the conscious control of the female. To fertilize an egg, she releases sperm from the spermatheca as the egg passes down the oviduct. By withholding sperm, she lays an egg destined to become a male. It follows that a female receives genetic material from both her father, via the sperm, and from her mother, via the egg. She therefore has the normal or ‘diploid’ number of chromosomes. By contrast, a male receives genetic material only from his mother. He has a single, maternal grandfather, but no father. In fact he has half the normal number of chromosomes and is said to be ‘haploid’.
It was Hamilton’s great insight to recognise the consequences of this, the haplo-diploid method of sex determination and how they affect the likelihood of sociality evolving in the Hymenoptera. And how, in fact, the apparently ‘selfless’ behaviour of workers has nothing to do with altruism, but rather a lot to do with the way haplo-diploidy distorts the genetic relationships between females in a family group.
Because a male bee is haploid, all his sperm are gentically identical. If a female mates only once, then all her female offspring will receive an identical set of genes from their father. But, because the mother is diploid, her daughters have in common only one half of the maternal genes.
If we now add up the genes received by a female bee from her father and mother, we can see that the hymenopteran sisters have a very special relationship. They share, on average, 75 per cent of their genes by common descent, i.e., 50 per cent from the father and 25 per cent from their mother. Thus, when a female bee or wasp has daughters, she passes on only 50 per cent of her genes to the next generation. But if she gives up reproduction and helps to rear sisters, some of which will become reproductive queens, then in so doing, she helps to pass on, via her sister, a set of genes which are, on average, 75 per cent identical to her own. Because the shared genes are identical, it does not matter whether they are in the female’s own eggs or in those of her younger sisters. By being a worker, she reproduces by proxy, the pay-off being the extra 25 per cent of genes which are perpetuated in this way.
This is the so-called theory of ‘kin selection’ and it offers the most elegant explanation for the evolution and maintenance of sociality in the Hymenoptera, especially the highly social (eusocial) forms such as the honeybees and stingless bees . . . It also solves Darwin’s dilemma and gives us an important new insight into social behaviour in bees, wasps and ants: far from being a selfless altruist, the worker hymenopteran is, or rather its genes are, utterly selfish.” (110-111).
This conclusion no doubt, pleased Richard Dawkins, who wrote, in 1976, the much-disputed The Selfish Gene.
The obvious question immediately arises that if being social is so genetically advantageous, why are not all bees social? There are many intriguing possibilities and explanations for this relating to changes of environment and so forth, but this is not the place to consider them, unfortunately. Moreover, it remains imprudent to draw general conclusions about the evolution of sociality in bees based only on a few, well-studied examples, for only the honeybee has been, so far, extensively studied and researched due mainly to its great usefulness to man’s economy.
A tentative conclusion, however, can be reached that “Each species has its own unique evolutionary history and its level of sociality (or lack of it) is more reasonably thought of as being the optimum for that species, at this point in its history.”(109)
We wrapped up this lively meeting with my briefly describing the 1828 and highly influential fable by John Minter Morgan entitled “Revolt of the Bees” which is set in Lanark and Loch Lomond in Scotland and which, in sharp contrast to Mandeville’s cynical fable, imagines honeybees deciding to become competitively individualistic and entrepreneural in their foraging and production of honey– all with dire results.
The conclusion of the author from this long poetic, and much annotated, prose tale, is that cooperation on Robert Owen-like industrial community lines is ultimately the most natural and beneficial path for bees–and, of course, by extension, mankind to follow. It is thus a powerful polemic and morality piece against classical economics and rugged industrial capitalism which successfully creates vast wealth but utterly fails to distribute this equally or justly. The key word, however, is “natural” which, of course, begs all the problematic anthropocentric philosophical questions– as we have seen throughout the course.
This was an apt and satisfying place to conclude this discussion and I finally also concluded the entire series by rhetorically asking the question: is, therefore, the honeybee, via its vast folk, mythical and scientific history, a relevant and useful metaphor for philosophy? I sadly answered that six months detailed investigation has clearly indicated that it is not. Not at all. Jonathan, sitting opposite me, nodded affirmatively–and vigorously. But: more to the point, what do YOU think?
Hemlockian 34 (Peter Tooth)
The Revolt of the Bees: Wherein the Future of the Paper-Hive is Declared
edited by Aaron Levy and Thaddeus Squire
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, 2005
Article from Canadian Journal of Sociology, v.35, issue 2, 2010, pp.335-337
Book Review of Diane M Rodgers’ Debugging the Link between Social Theory and Social Insects
by Sandra Robinson
Debugging the Link Between Social Theory and Social Insects
by Diane M Rodgers
Chapter 3: A Bee or Not a Bee: Historical and Cross-Cultural Interpretations
Excerpts from Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
by Peter Kropotkin
Editor’s Introduction, Preface, and Introduction to the 1914 edition
pp 38-39, Evidence of mutual aid in honey bees
Link to a free download of John Minter Morgan’s The Revolt of the Bees:
[This link will take you to the Google Books website–click on the front cover displayed there to open the e-book. You can also download the file if you prefer by clicking on the ‘EBOOK FREE’ link at the left of the page. You will need to log into a Google account to download.]
Bees, Politics and Social Theory:
This is an enormous but fascinating subject. You name your philosopher/commentator: Marx, Proudhon, Fourier, Kropotkin, Plato, etc, etc.
Above you will find two interesting weblinks from Rodgers’ academic work (a book summary by Sandra Robinson plus all of Chapter 3, entitled ” A Bee or Not a Bee: Historical and Cross-Cultural Interpretations”), together with a brief weblinked overview of Kroptkin’s cooperative evolution theory from his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, with its relevance to the social honeybee (but, also, arguably, as the brief additional excerpt on honeybees reveals, few other bee species which are predominately solitary in their habits).
In the interests of trying to balance theory–and folk mythology–with fact (!*), I am also bringing along to this final class discussion, some judiciously selected facts and observations from Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole & Anthony Raw (Blandford, 1991) via a 14 page free handout for all attendees). To flesh out the actual empirical, scientific, and entomological facts, I will also be referring to the Wikipedia online article on “Honeybees” as well as the impressively researched and comprehensive book, The Honey Bee by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould (Scientific American Library, 1988).
The Solitary and the Social: competition and cooperation.
The problem for our final discussion is basically this: what weights are to be accorded, scientifically (especially from a Darwinist, evolutionary point of view) and philosophically, to the solitary/individual/competitive aspect of life as compared with the social/cooperative/mutual aid/utopian one.
The social utopianism delineated in John Minter Morgan’s 1828 rare book and satirical polemic, entitled Revolt of the Bees bears not a little resemblance in both style and purpose to Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees written a full century before, and is well-worth reading in full, should that be feasible [see the weblink above]. If not, I provide a short summary below of this seminal but little-known work, together with the complete vitrine (case) documents of the 2005 Philadelphia rare books exhibition that was inspired by it. Plus ca change . . .
Approaching matters from a chronological viewpoint, let’s start our online discussion then where it all more or less began, that is, with our old friend, Plato and his classical utopianism of The Republic and, specifically, his droning on at length re the useless drones (I promise to keep it short!):
The Great Winged Drone Eros
You will recall that I have already referred to The Republic when we were considering Plato’s mimetic theory of art and also when he considered the sweetness of poetry to be a dangerous toxin to the proper functioning of his proposed ideal polis. Well, Plato elaborates upon the latter in an extended metaphor concerning the civic uselessness of honeybee drones during his long narrative of imperfect societies and regime changes in Books VIII and IX which embrace, progressively, Timarchy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny.
Rana Saadi Liebert’s 2010 article, Apian Imagery and the Critique of Poetic Sweetness in Plato’s Republic, summarizes these 50 pages succinctly as follows:
“Socrates [here] expresses a more marked disdain for sweetness in his use of apian metaphors–-a use that subtly perverts poetry’s traditional self-presentation by conflating the image of the bee-poet producing ‘honeyed hymns’ with that of the drone-citizen draining society’s resources.
“Like honey and the honeybee, the drone has a venerable pedigree in archaic literary imagery, where it appears in civically rather than poetically orientated apian metaphors. This civic tradition of apian figures begins with Hesiod, who tells us that (Op. 302-6) . . . ‘Hunger is an altogether fitting companion for the lazy man. Both gods and men resent a man who lives unproductively, one resembling the stingless drones in nature, who waste the labor of bees by eating without working.’
“In the economy of the hive, the drones are perceived to be social parasites, consuming the goods of productive members of their community without producing anything themselves. According to this civic conception of the hive, worker-bees function as ideal citizens, unjustly (though necessarily) burdened with the dregs of society, and unthinkingly martyring themselves for the good of the whole.
“Elsewhere in Hesiod the dichotomy is gendered with men cast as productive bees and women as parasitic drones (Theog.594-602): ‘As in the thatched hives bees feed the drones who are criminal partners–-all day long until the sun goes down the bees are busy laying the white combs, day after day, while the drones stay indoors in the covered hives and reap the toil of others into their own bellies–-so did Zeus who thunders on high make women to be an evil for mortal men, grievous partners.’ Hesiod’s blatant misogyny is echoed and subtly altered by the lyric poet Semonides half a century later in his notorious catalogue of women (fr.7)”.
[We have already discussed such poetical misogyny in our September 21st meeting–and, for the long, edited poem of Semonides, please see the last postscript weblink for that discussion group under the fourth pull-down menu button in the above tool bar; also, please see Pru Ahmed’s weblink immediately below to The Bee Movie and the related blog comments for more on the ongoing, un-PC, and dismaying issue of current bee/human metaphorical sexism].
The major point is that, returning to the article:
“Despite these subtle variations, the polarity between the bee and drone remains one which, on the surface at least, separates the social from the asocial, the productive member of society from the destructive. In light of this traditional understanding, the ideal aspect of the hive’s economy represented by the productive bee is conspiculously absent from Plato’s Republic, eclipsed by the prominence of the viscious drone, who, as we will see, contaminates the apian metaphoric complex (note 24: Socrates does briefly evoke the hive as a positive political model at 520b, where he describes the philosopher-kings as ‘leaders and kings of the hive’ in order to convey the city’s acceptance of their natural superiority and remind them of their duties to the city).
“In Socrates’ narrative of regime change, the drone figures predictably as a quintessential parasite, a ‘disease of the hive’ that consumes its resources without contributing to its economy (552c). He first evokes the drone to characterize the destitute spendthrifts who crop up in oligarchic societies as victims of predatory lending (552a-b).
“The metaphor persists throughout the narrative of regime change. Beggars are’stingless’ drones whereas outright criminals, such as thieves and muggers, ‘have terrible stings’ (552c-e); thus ‘drone-like desires’. . . come in ‘beggarly’ . . . and ‘criminal . . . varieties (554b-c). The stinging drone and his characeristic desire seem to be a Platonic innovation, intended to suggest something more actively malignant than the relatively innocuous consumer represented by the traditional, stingless drone [which in nature it always is].
“The criminal drones of oligarchy grow up to be democratic revolutionaries (555d-556a). The oligarch’s son turns into a democratic man once he ‘tastes the drones’ honey’ . . . which, Socrates explains, is the sweeet pleasure of satisfying gratuitous desires (559d-e): . . . ‘When a youth, raised in the way we were just describing, without education and stingily, gets a taste of the drones’ honey and associates with fiery and clever beasts who know how to purvey manifold and subtle pleasures of every variety, then you must suppose that this is the beginning of his transformation . . . from the oligarchic regime within him to a democratic one.’
“Here Socrates’ revaluation of sweetness as a toxin allows him to transform the apian symbol of economic productivity–honey– into one of excess and corruption. Honey is now equated with a variety of gratuitous and pernicious pleasures that act like a poisonous drug on the soul of the oligarch’s son.
“The drones of democratic society are hedonists trafficking pleasure, ‘a class of idle and extravagant men’ who blight the city and ought to be ‘cut out as quickly as possible, cells and all’ (564b-c). Rich men are called ‘the drones’ pasture . . . because of the ‘honey’ that the masses manage to ‘extract’ from them (564e). Finally, the malcontents of democracy implant Eros, ‘a great winged drone’ . . . in the soul of the tyrant, thereafter controlled and consumed by this most insatiable of parasites (573a). In the acme of his power, the detested tyrant can only survive by hiring an armed guard of ‘drones’ made up of thugs and former slaves to protect him (567d-e).” Not an uplifting prospect–and a far cry from any attractive democratic utopia–which, of course, is Plato’s whole point!
Despite all this anti-democratic and elitist Platonic doom and gloom–as the exhibition documents above clearly show–the honeybee and the hive have usually been regarded by mankind throughout history as inspirational models for progressive and often utopian social and political organization: not unqualifiedly so though: as Manderville’s copious writings and John Minter Morgan’s 1828 Revolt of the Bees, with their fulsome asides, polemical remarks, and quotations, attest.
In this regard also, note Vitrine 6 above, entitled “The Hive fancies itself a utopia” which selects James Bonner’s The bee-master’s companion, and assistant of 1789 (ironically, the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution) and cites it as follows: ” A Beehive is a commonwealth, of which every individual is a senator, a soldier, and a mechanic. She is governed by laws which every one approves of, and yields chearful [sic] obedience to; no parliamentary discords among them, no intestine wars, no arbitrary demands, no exerted obedience.” The vitrine’s text continues as follows:
“James Bonner . . . speaks of the hive as an enlightened, utopic society or ‘commonwealth’, in which universally accepted order and law presides, all are comfortable in their respective positions, and wealth and possessions are equitably distributed. ‘The Bee called the Queen’, he writes, ‘so far as ever I could observe, has no sovereignty over the rest of the Bees. The form of government in a hive seems not to be monarchical, but a democracy . . . ‘
“Like all utopic visions, however, Bonner’s democratic inclinations have their limits, such as when Bonner maligns the drone bees when he notes that bees ‘ . . . are temperate in diet, no gormandisers or drunkards among them (the Drones excepted) . . .’ In subsequent passages, his idealized hive is revealed to be equally subject to factionalization, as is the case with any real democratic society.”
This compares and contrasts vividy with Morgan’s polemical fable and morality tale published thirty years later but yet consciously and specifically inspired by and relating to the prior revolutionary ardour. Vitrine 10 of the above exhibition documents, entitled “The Hive is not inherently altruistic” makes Morgan’s major theme of social and economic inequality in the hive the centerpiece of its display:
“Their institutions were the obvious causes of dissatisfaction and turbulence: of inequality in the distribution of honey, and all the evil consequences resulting therefrom . . .”.
The text then proceeds to evaluate the book’s historical and political significance for socialism and cooperative communalism:
“John Minter Morgan’s The revolt of the bees (London, 1828) is a social commentary and satirical polemic about the socio-economic inequalities and hardships for many bees and humans in his day. Morgan’s polemic demonstrates both the satirical thrust of the utopian tradition, and his serious yearnings for superior societies and polities in an age of enlightenment, revolution and romanticism. He attributes the suffering that results from the ‘unequal division of honey’ to the institutions and economies of the hive, and proposes the redistribution of wealth through less competitive and more co-operative means.
Gregory Claeys has argued that works such as Morgan’s The revolt of the bees evidence how much of the communitarian aspects of early socialism descended from various utopian forms of social critique. These works also help us plot the development of republican ideals latent in agrarian society into the various forms of nineteenth-century socialism. While Morgan proposes many communitarian solutions to mollify the general state of ‘dissatisfaction and turbulence,’ he clearly aspires toward an apian and human society rooted in a fundamentally altruistic spirit. Nevertheless, he is compelled to acknowledge the impossibility of his vision”– but I will leave it to the reader to decide this point for his or her self.
A Christmas Carol for bees?
Morgan begins his salutary and idealistic morality tale thus:
“It happened some thirty years since, when revolutionary principles were so much in vogue, that a few of the bees, in one of the larger hives, manifested a desire to change the policy they had hitherto pursued.”
They quickly do so and, in short, disaster follows, until, as in all good fairy stories, a disembodied spirit–in the guise of Allan Ramsay–apparently a famous Scottish lyrical poet–appears and waves his magic wand and transports all the bees to a future and enchanted local world in Loch Lomand, Scotland, where, Robert Owen-like, all have learned to live in cooperative industrial and bucolic, classically-architectured bliss, having rejected for once-and-all the stupidities and contradictions of individualistic greed and capitalistic accumulative profit! Wow!
All, of course, ends happily ever after with the bees finally realising the egregious errors of their ways and rapturously deciding to return to their original and utopian “Nature’s system” of organising and running their hives cooperatively: but not before a powerful and final coda-like visionary warning from our poetic sage “Genius”, who again waves his wand, for all the world like Scrooge’s unwelcome visitor, the Ghost of Christmas Future, to introduce a terrifically furious storm of Miltonian or Dante-esque proportions and descriptions:
The Demon of Discord:
“Over this frightful scene the Genius waved his wand, and exclaimed, ‘Behold the demon of discord, ruling paramount over his turbulent empire, the chaos of Competetion.’ And as the vivid flashes illuminated the dread abyss, there appeared in the midst a hideous monster of gigantic stature, wearing an iron crown and seated on a throne raised upon the tombs of those who had been consigned to a premature grave, from the sorrows and conflicts of contending interests. Surrounding this throne, but at some distance, were small eminences, with men attempting to climb to the summit; but when they had got half way up, or even higher, they fell to the bottom, or pulled down others, whom they destroyed, for the sake of supplanting them.
“Of the millions endeavouring to rise, but a few reached the summits; which even when attained, disappointment lowered on their brows, for they envied those whose eminences were still higher than their own, while they in turn excited the envy of all below. The failure of the multitude did not abate this general eagerness to ascend; for the unfortunate, however numerous, were soon lost sight of and forgotten, while the successful few occupied conspicuous stations.
“Again the Genius waved his wand, and the demon with his throne vanished, ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision,’ and his empire was but dimly seen: the storm began to subside; and, as the lightning played with less intensity, it disclosed a lower depth, the gulf of oblivion. Hither were hastening all the supports and appendages of the Competitive System– prisons, and the terrible instruments of punishment–with books and pamphlets out of number–Puffendorf, Vatel, Coke, Littleton, the Statutes at large, Currency, National Debt, Principle of Population, &c, &c.
“A volume of clouds rolled over the gulf; and then gradually opening, an immense globe turning on its axis, and representing the earth, emerged from the centre. The seasons, and all the operations of nature, appeared in rapid succession: the seed dropped into the ground, and soon reappeared in the beautiful form of the flower; the acorn fell, and anon the oak extended its luxuriant branches. Each revolution, instead of describing diurnal changes, exhibited a different era. At the first, mankind was seen in the hunting state,–‘When first in woods the noble savage ran.’ At the second, shepherds were tending their flocks, and playing on the oaten pipe. . .
“At the third revolution the plough was in the ground, and the right of private property was established. Then commenced usurpation, robbery, and war. At the fourth, science had enabled man to produce riches in abundance, but as yet the right use of them was unknown: there might be seen immense masses of wealth in the midst of a starving population, more contention than when less wealth prevailed, and infinitely more disease and crime.
“At the fifth revolution a far greater change had taken place than in any of the preceding. Wealth, which had before laid in masses, was now beneficially diffused and greatly increased. And now prevailed the invaluable riches of the mind, and all the virtues flourished;–for ignorance with its train of follies and vices had fled, never more to return. The lion dwelt in peace with the lamb, the eagle and the turtle-dove took their flight together. The waters gushed out in the dry places, and the wilderness became converted into rich pastures. In the desert bloomed the myrtle and the rose, while the clustering vine sprang up bearing its purple fruit. The lowly hut was supplanted by the convenient and splendid edifice; and the whole earth exhibited indescribable magnificence and beauty.
” As the storm passed away, these fairy scenes melted into air, and the moon arose in calm and unclouded majesty, casting her mild radiance over the humid plains. The Genius waved his wand, and suddenly a lunar rainbow, rising from the summit of the mountain, extended over the country to the Pentland Hills. A light billowy cloud appeared, bearing an aerial chariot, the wheels of which resembled the rich golden colours of the setting sun; the body was of a rosy hue, and formed like a hive. The Genius ascended the chariot, while the innumerable silken traces of the finest tenuity were borne by the bees, who thus conducted the Spirit over the iris to their native hills.”
And everybody doubtlessly lived happily ever after–and Scrooge sent the little boy to the butcher’s shop on Christmas morning to buy the prize goose.
God bless us everybody, EVERYONE!
A Very Very Merry Christmas and a Prosperous and Happy New Year!
Discuss amongst yourselves, dear brethren, and bee–lievers?!
Peter Tooth (Hemlockian34)