Leaf-cutter ants at Playa Blanca, Cahuita, Costa Rica/Hans Hillewaert

Leaf-cutter ants at Playa Blanca, Cahuita, Costa Rica/Hans Hillewaert

If you spoke about people who made revolutionary advancements in molecular and cell biology according to the organisms that they did it with, you would say they’ve done it because they love gut bacteria, they love round worms, and they love snails. That’s what they use to make advancements. Ants are what we use to make advancements in the origins of social behavior.

Well let’s not limit your scope. Your research might also help lead to advancements in several other areas of study like the arts.

I believe what’s happened now is we have a better working multi-level theory, and in the future, there are going to be a lot of questions raised about the kinds of social behavior, the epigenetic roles – that is the extent to which we are predisposed to do certain things as opposed to others – and the ways we interact to create a society and what makes it come apart. In short, what’s happening now is the beginning of a revolution in one part of science. And I believe this will continue right on into the humanities. This I think will eventually inform us as to why we consider certain things beautiful and powerful in the creative arts.

So much of the tension between collective interests and individual action seems to play out in the newspaper everyday and within science itself. Are you constantly considering human affairs through this biological lens?

I would say almost the totality of human behavior is that tug of war between moral group-oriented behavior and the appeal to it on the one side and the selfish behavior on the other.

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