Primitive ant people…

…are at it again:

The twilight zone:
ambient light levels trigger activity in primitive ants

What’s unfortunate about this title is that the judgement “primitive” has nothing to do with the research. It is unnecessary. The study is about how one species of ant uses ambient light levels to trigger foraging.  It’s a nicely done bit of work.  But whether or not these ants are “primitive” has zilch to do with the science.

Back in the day, western anthropologists would study Primitive Culture. Such terms are no longer used in that field, and for good reason. It’s not just that labeling other humans as “savages” and “primitives” is offensive.  It’s that these laden terms carry more baggage than information. “Primitive” leads us to assume we know things about the subject that were not, in fact, ever quantitatively measured or tested. In doing so we unknowingly substitute prejudice for knowledge.

In this sense, many myrmecologists remain stuck in the Victorian mindset, viewing ant societies through a thick glass of presumption. “Primitive” serves no objective function here- all I learn from its inclusion in the title is that the authors don’t fully grasp the evolutionary process.

25 thoughts on “Primitive ant people…”

  1. Alex,
    “…many myrmecologists remain stuck in the Victorian mindset, viewing ant societies through a thick glass of presumption…” AMEN BROTHER. This applies to ant ecology, ant systematics, ant biology, and why, with so many new students entering myrmecology every year? I believe it is because there are so few people truly invested in studying natural history and traditional pursuits such as alpha taxonomy. As a result we have “just so” stories with little foundation in empirical results. Open minds and experiments will lead us from the abyss of ignorance. Sorry, just had to rant a bit.

    1. As an alternative perspective…

      Is it really that authors using these terms don’t fully grasp the evolutionary process? Or could it be that they don’t understand the definition of (or rather the currently acknowledged problems with) the term “primitive”? I would guess that for most cases it is the latter.

      I think that many myrmecologists that don’t have very recent training in systematics are using this term as shorthand for “taxa that are thought to have retained a suite of ancestral/plesiomorphic traits”. There is a difference between understanding the evolutionary process and having a good command of the currently accepted terminology to refer to it in a concise, accurate manner.

      It is not like systematists even agree on the problems of using the term primitive. A quick search of papers in Systematics Biology from 2005 to present found 47 papers that use the term. My guess is that these papers use the term in a more restricted, well-defined way, but they are still using it.

      Misinterpretation of the evolutionary process is a problem that occurs in the field of myrmecology. No question. I’m not disagreeing. However, good interpretation is often betrayed by bad vocabulary.

      1. I don’t so much mind the term primitive when applied to particular characters , although I prefer ancestral or pleisiomorphic. Myrmecia may have a “primitive” communication system, for instance, and that use is fine. But Myrmecia also has some derived features- some of which weren’t terribly obvious until the genus was placed in a phylogeny- so that to call the entire taxon “primitive” is inappropriate.

      2. I agree.

        All I’m saying is that many people coming from a non-systematics background do not have this kind of command of the subtleties of the terminology. It is definitely a problem, but it does have many layers ranging from “complete misinterpretation of evolution” to a “bad choice of words”.

  2. I accept your criticism of primitive’s myrmecological usage while rejecting your anthropological analogy.

    “The term “Primitive Culture” is no longer used … labeling other humans as “savages” and “primitives” is offensive. These laden terms carry more baggage than information.”

    Do they?

    Primitive (anthropology): of, or relating to, a nonindustrial, often tribal culture, especially one that is characterized by a low level of economic complexity. From Latin primus (first). I find primitive in this sense more informative than baggage-laden.

    “Savage” also comes from Latin; “silva” means forest. Technically it’s also a descriptive term although it has traditionally been used in a derogatory fashion, often accompanying the word “heathen” which has an obscure etymology.

    For more word fun, read

    1. This link to “true slant” is not a source that represents current trends in anthropological thinking.

      For a sense of what cultural anthropologists think about the trope of “primitive” check out James Clifford’s book: “The Predicament of Culture”

  3. I’m glad that Alex likes to rant about ‘primitive’ mites and I appreciate the distinction between a lineage being early derivative and a character being primitive. Warren, however, does have a point: such terms are commonly used and they are fungible – meanings mutate.

    I just finished reading a biography of Samuel Champlain and he seems to have used ‘savages’ in its original ‘people of the woods’ meaning and had great respect for the people he met up and down the St Lawrence and considered them the equal or superior to the French he was able to bring along with him.

    I’ve been trying to do without the equally insidious concepts of ‘native’ (also used as a pejorative for colonised people – an in the original Latin usage meaning one ‘born into slavery’) and ‘natural’, but I’ll be buggered if doesn’t take constant vigilance and make one unnaturally stilted in conversation and writing. I think Roberto earlier made the point that we use metaphor and analogy to communicate. I would add that we often simplify; make vague, only partially true dichotomies; and otherwise need to twist the facts to present a coherent story.

  4. Whatever merits the term may have in other contexts, I agree with Alex that “primitive” is as good as useless in this particular title — It bears no clear meaning, and thus, no cogent information. Indeed, it could even be construed as misleading, implying to unversed readers that the foraging traits they studied are somehow ancestral in ants.

    Now if they had written something like “crepuscular myrmeciine” in place of this useless term, that would have made for a good title.

    Gotta give ’em some credit for the catchy use of “Twilight Zone”, though.

    1. Those are my thoughts exactly, James. This is quite a nice paper, and I loved the Twilight Zone bit. I just don’t see why they needed to put the bit in about “primitive”, as it’s not relevant to the study, nor is it particularly accurate.

      1. I hate to go on, but I am certain this is a vocabulary problem.

        Ask any behaviorist to describe a “primitive ant” and they are almost certainly going to describe a big, solitary foraging poneroid. However, almost none of them will think that it is actually “primitive” in the sense of being simple or somehow backwards to other ants.

        I’m not defending the use of the word in this context in any way. I just saying that asking why they would use such a misleading word may be missing the point that they may just have different (yet ultimately wrong) word definitions. In simple terms, they don’t know their dictionary is years out of date.

      2. Yeah, I think I mis-spoke when I said that the authors don’t understand evolutionary processes. That’s an unfair characterization.

        What I mean was, they misunderstand evolutionary patterns. That’s what lead them to use an inappropriate term.

      3. “they misunderstand evolutionary patterns. That’s what lead them to use an inappropriate term.”

        Certainly in some cases, but not in all. It is quite possible to understand evolutionary pattern and not have developed the “correct” vocabulary to accurately describe or reference it. Understanding and language do not necessarily go hand in hand, especially when some words have come to mean different things in different fields.

        Again, I’m not defending this misuse, just providing an alternative perspective on why the misuse might have occurred.

      4. Perhaps I am being a bit charitable, but I do talk to people that are in this middle ground of understanding patterns (or more specifically trees) but can’t talk about them very well. It was certainly my experience for a while, coming from a starting point of more traditional behavioral ecology.

  5. I suspect the authors understand the evolutionary process quite well but used the word “primitive” for the very same reason they opted for the term “twilight zone” – it’s an attention grabber, and who doesn’t want their papers to get attention?

    “The twilight zone: ambient light levels trigger activity in primitive ants” has much more punch than “The transitional photophase: ambient light levels trigger activity in one ant of putatively ancestral derivation”.

      1. So everything is just a terminal taxon on the tree of life? Sounds very 1984ish.

        I think it is fair to call ‘twilight zone’ an attention grabber (and also fair to criticize it as meaningless to anyone lacking the same cultural history of the authors), but ‘primitive’ transcends culture. I think everyone can understand the concept of some animals being more equal than others.

        I don’t know, Myrmecos, you may be convincing me I’m being too pedantic for not using ‘native’.

  6. Pingback: The phylogenetic position of the “primitive” Myrmecia « Myrmecos Blog

  7. You are tilting at windmills

    Give it up and surrender to those who corrupt the neat definitions and distinctions made by the valiant Don Quixote de la Mancha Alex Wild


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