In response to yesterday’s Polyergus photo, Ed Yong asks:

Why yes, I do have views.

The semantics of brood parasitism in ants was first raised by Joan Herbers in 2006, and elaborated in 2007:

Let us apply to the slavery metaphor those arguments developed for changing the jargon of animal reproductive behavior. First, using human labels to describe animal behavior implies similarities that may be mistaken. Indeed, my experience verifies that use of the slavery metaphor triggers a connection with human brutality that is hard to shake (Anonymous 2002). Second, such terms are offensive because they evoke negative human experiences and can serve to reinforce the prevailing social order (Zuk 1993). More than one colleague has expressed this point of view to me concerning the slavery metaphor.

Third, I assert that by using such terms we may be harming the scientific enterprise itself. Because science is a culturally bounded human institution, we scientists can learn about the impact of our jargon from scholars of rhetoric. For example, Toni Morrison has studied how literary interpretation has been hampered by inattention to the fact that our societies are racially charged (Morrison 1992). Similarly, we must consider how our words affect public understanding and acceptance of science. In the United States, we are technologically dependent yet scientifically illiterate, and using jargon that discourages even one individual from learning more about science is simply irresponsible. I find it hard to imagine a young black student being attracted to a discipline that calls parasitized insects “slaves” and “negro ants.”

A final argument for discarding the slavery metaphor questions its aptness to the behavior we study. Ants depart from human slave owners in much of their behavior. They neither breed nor auction off their captives. Newly fertilized parasite queens must invade and take over an established host nest in order to secure the workforce needed to tend their eggs; this invasion behavior has no counterpart in human slavery. The metaphor is, at best, imperfect.

Yet discarding metaphors altogether in favor of obscure jargon is incompatible with interesting students and the public in my work. While no metaphor can be perfect, I offer an alternative. I suggest that we replace “slave-making ants” with “pirate ants.” Pirates certainly take captives when they board ships, and pirates rely on forced labor. We can replace “slave” with “captive” and “dulosis” with “leistic behavior,” from the Greek for pirated spoils, leistos. To be sure, the pirate metaphor has its own imperfections when we use it to describe ant behavior—but the social impact on audiences, if anything, might be positive. I, for one, prefer audiences to identify my work with Captain Jack Sparrow than with Simon Legree.

In naming scientific concepts we have a choice. We can create new terminology fit precisely to the phenomenon at hand, or we can co-opt common language to form an analogy. The analogy is going to be wrong on some level, as analogies are, but what we lose in accuracy we gain in pedagogy.

If I say ants are dulotic, or leistic, or cleptergic, a handful of specialists will understand. If I say ants take slaves, suddenly everyone who speaks English understands, even if the details are a little fuzzy.

Slavery was, and is, an ugly product of human society. I don’t wish to downplay the horrors of coerced labor and stolen lives, but the slavery metaphor is, in my opinion, strikingly close to what these ants are doing. However, let’s accept that Herbers’s argument from cultural sensitivity is correct. Our options are to use a more technical term (I like James Trager’s cleptergy), or to find a more apt analogy. Herbers prefers pirates.

I don’t think Herbers’s solution is workable, though. Piracy is a terrible parallel to what ants like Protomognathus and Polyergus do. Pirates take things. Slave-raiding ants aren’t primarily pillaging the food stores of other colonies. They don’t lay in wait along trails to steal forage. No. The brood parasites take actual, living ants whose labor they use for their own benefit. That is slavery. If I call these ants pirates, I am not communicating accurately about their biology. Piracy, for me, is out.

I run a web site that is visited by non-specialists. I need to employ terminology the public can understand, even if inexact. If we can borrow a better analogy than slavery (sweat-shops? kidnapping?) then I’m all for it. But until a more accurate parallel surfaces I have no problem calling the behavior of acquiring a labor force via brood theft slavery.

Herbers, J. M. 2006. The loaded language of science. Chronicle of Higher Education. 52: B5
Herbers, J. M. 2007. Watch Your Language! Racially Loaded Metaphors in Scientific Research. BioScience 57. doi 10.1641/B570203
Trager, J. 2007. Collected thoughts on “pirate” ants and “leistic” behavior. Notes from Underground, online.