photo by Daniele Giannetti

The ethologist Donato Antonio Grasso reflects on the life and social behavior of ants

The first seminar dedicated to the XXIII International Exhibition 2022 took place on March 4, 2020 in Triennale. It was joined by experts in various fields, from astrophysics to philosophy, ethology, visual art, geopolitics and robotics. Following the speech of the ethologist Donato Antonio Grasso.

Video of the speech by Donato Antonio Grasso at the seminar of 4 March 2020

"When one examines the relationship between man and nature, one iconic photo that often crops up is the one taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. The picture, known as the Blue Marble, is particularly striking because it shows the Earth fully illuminated by the sun. It was here that, over 3.5 billion years ago, matter acquired the peculiar properties that we refer to as life. Everything to do with life has taken place and takes place in a thin layer, just 20 kilometres thick, known as the biosphere. Space travel enabled us to get away from it for the first time but, paradoxically, we only realised how beautiful and vulnerable our planet is when we were able to turn round and look at it in the face, as it were. Coming closer to it with a virtual zoom lens, we find ourselves in the presence of a kaleidoscope of natural phenomena that permeate even the most hidden recesses in the biosphere. 'The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper', wrote W.B. Yeats."

Blue Marble, Nasa

"This is the spirit with which biologists and naturalists explore life, trying to make the shift from looking to seeing. Studying nature in all its exhilarating beauty gives us a chance to experience a general principle of the adventure of science: wherever it is found, the unexplored is always an exotic journey to the frontiers of knowledge. It makes no difference if the exploration is in a tropical forest or in our home garden. As the great biologist E.O. Wilson pointed out, one could devote an entire life to a journey, on a par with that of Magellan, around the trunk of a single tree." 

photo by Daniele Giannetti

"Living organisms are like windows through which we can observe life and see it in all its various facets. Among these, ants are some of the first organisms we became familiar with when we were children. They are a feature of our daily lives and an integral part of our mental landscape. However, to understand how their colonies operate, we need to encapsulate their tiny universe and analyse how the individual components are integrated to form the whole. Here, events are of unusual importance. In this almost magical space-time, the hustle and bustle of life is enclosed in a microcosm. It may be that ants intrigue us because we think we can see an ideal representation of our own world in their social organisation. But ants and humans are very different animals. Rather than anthropomorphising these insects and looking for metaphors in their social life in order to reflect on our own, we need to broaden our knowledge of them."

"The most important lesson we can learn from them is the knowledge we acquire by studying them, and this has important implications in areas that can extend well beyond the realm of biology. They are excellent subjects, not because they are a simplified version of humans and of our social life, but rather because studying them can help us understand the fundamental processes that are common to other systems. As humans, we base our relationships on mutual knowledge and emotional involvement, and we organise our activities in a hierarchical, top-down manner, whereas with ants the key word is decentralisation. In practice, their collective activities are naturally carried out by individuals, with each one contributing to the whole with actions guided by simple rules (algorithms) based on local information. The action of each individual influences the activities of the others, which in turn adopt the same or other rules. The end result is a product with properties that are greater than the sum of the parts. And yet no one actually directs their work. Here the boss (the brain) is the entire group. Which is why we refer to swarm or collective intelligence."

"Some of these algorithms have been worked out and used in the design of software to solve problems similar to those encountered by ants during their everyday lives, such as how to find the shortest distance between various points. The software has already found applications in such areas as sorting goods, in optimising the internet, and in designing robots that work collaboratively. But ants also provide important ecosystem services in the rearrangement, aeration, and enrichment of the soil, using organic substances, as well as in the biological control of infesting agents. Experimental studies have also shown that ants, or the microorganisms associated with some particular species, produce antibiotic substances, while others appear to be effective against some cellular pathologies. They are also useful as ecological bioindicators and indicators of environmental quality. Once again, all this points to the importance of studying and safeguarding the natural world, of which we are an integral part." 

Cerambicide, photo by Daniele Giannetti

"Nature offers amazing stories that have made their way through time and space all the way to us. Biological diversity is the outcome of unique evolutionary processes: each forest is a world like no other, each species a unique experience in the history of life, and it is worth knowing about them. It is up to us to protect them and keep them safe for future generations. In this mission, art and science come together as allies on a journey that, starting from a sense of wonder, needs to think up a whole world and plan its creation. The time has come to prove that we are worthy of the name we have given ourselves: sapiens. The future of life on Earth will depend on it, as will the heritage of all that is beautiful and useful, which can be found in every smallest fragment of it."

Gonepteryx, photo by Daniele Giannetti

Professor of General Zoology and Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology at University of Parma. Former Board member of the Italian Society of Ethology and former President of the Italian Section of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects. He is a member of the Scientific and Ethics Committees of the Museo Civico di Rovereto. He is the author of Il formicaio intelligente (2018, Zanichelli). 

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