Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better

Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 2007). 302 pp.  £36.50 hb. ISBN 0-8018-8445-4.

We might be surprised to discover how many of our beliefs about the mind, society, economics and communication are indebted to research on ants, through the field of myrmecology. Charlotte Sleigh’s Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology demonstrates how research on ants influenced some of the most important ideas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries about what it means to be human, including ideas of language and literature.

As a “cultural history,” Six Legs Better is more than a chronology of the scientific and the disciplinary history of myrmecology.  Sleigh’s lively narrative and comprehensive understanding of the furthest connections between her subject and other disciplines means that the book’s relevance is much broader. This is partly because the disciplinary boundaries of myrmecology are somewhat amorphous and undefined, overlapping with many other disciplines in the arts, humanities and sciences. As Sleigh writes, “[t]he relations of ‘myrmecology’ to other disciplines illuminate unexpected dimensions of the latter” (62). Spanning the century between the 1874 publication of August Forel’s Les Fourmis de la Suisse and Edward O. Wilson’s 1975 publication of Sociobiology, Sleigh’s research involves extensive use of archival materials, including volumes of personal letters and papers produced by the three central entomologists who compose the backbone of myrmecological history: Forel, William Morton Wheeler and Wilson. As a result the book is extensively footnoted, which is useful for other researchers wishing to bushwhack their way through the forest of cultural and scientific sources connected to myrmecology. Yet Sleigh’s elegant writing makes the core narrative highly readable. She also includes a very helpful “Essay on Sources” at the end of the book, which explains much of her methodology and directs readers through her materials.

The readability of the book is also helped by the compelling characters of Forel, Wheeler, and Wilson. Each of these scientists was the leading figure of ant study in his day. Each promoted a particular vision of the ant and its relation to the colony, and each connected that vision to the human sphere, making ants the operative models for various components of human existence. While weaving the historical narrative through the personal stories of the scientists, Sleigh also manages to keep the science itself in the foreground. Six Legs Better is divided into three sections, each one centered on one of the three entomologists: part one looks at Forel and “Psychological Ants”, part two at Wheeler and “Sociological Ants”, and part three at Wilson and “Communicational Ants”. Forel, who worked in asylums and with alcoholics, exemplifies what may seem to us to be odd connections between entomology and other social concerns; in Forel’s case, the study of ants connected to his interest in the temperance movement and atheism. He modeled his home, which was also a treatment centre for alcoholics, on an ant colony – even naming it La Fourmilire.

Moving from psychology to sociology, the second part of Six Legs Better focuses on Wheeler, best known for his theory of the superorganism, in which he posited that the ant colony functions as a single entity made up of masses of individuals. This theory, deeply indebted to other types of holism, has waxed and waned in scientific acceptance and popularity over the twentieth century. It has contributed theories of emergence, which have implications for those working in cybernetics and sociology. Interestingly, Wilson first rejected the idea of the superorganism, but has now reconsidered it; he and Bert Hölldolber have just published a glossy volume on the subject, and it will be interesting to see if their revival of the theory will have the same cultural impact that Wilson’s Sociobiology had in the 1970s. Sleigh devotes the last section of her book to Wilson’s theories and their socio-political impacts, as well as their connections to cybernetics. While the historical scope of Six Legs Better is a convenient century, since Wilson has gone on to produce a lot more research in the field and to continue to connect myrmecology to other scientific and social issues (especially environmental issues), at this point the frame of Sleigh’s study seems a bit arbitrary. Still, Sleigh’s explanation of the political circumstances in which Wilson reconstructed myrmecology as a discipline to suit reductionist approaches to science, as well as establishing its relationship to mathematical models of biology, shows the trajectory of the discipline, although the story of Wilson’s truce with Jim Watson and other geneticists is left for another time.

For the researcher of science and literature, this book is a valuable resource. Sleigh includes substantial sections on the literary aspect of her history (one might call them digressions if it were not for her overarching point that myrmecology is integral to much of twentieth-century intellectualism). This includes an entire chapter, “Ants in the Library: An Interlude,” that explores the influence of myrmecology on linguistic theories, including the idea of international languages like “Basic English”, promoted by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. Myrmecology also produced a rich bank of entomological metaphors for modern literature; for example, Brave New World constructed a fictional human world based on the rather bleak “top-down” theories of social insects like termites and ants. These theories came to Aldous Huxley through his brother’s research on ants, research which was heavily indebted to Wheeler’s studies of trophallaxis (mutual feeding) and its relationship to the superorganism (think of how the soma works). Such ideas did not only find literary footholds in our culture, but they also infiltrated public policy, most directly in the economic policies of Herbert Hoover during the Depression (Wheeler and Hoover were friends).

In addition to providing useful metaphors and models for human societies, myrmecology developed alongside the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century genres of natural history writing, and Forel, Wheeler and Wilson were all proficient writers who were highly sensitive to the textual nature of their work. Mid-century “sociological” entomology done by Wheeler, for example, linked to holistic ideologies of nature and the human mind; writing – nature writing in particular – was seen to participate in larger analogies between science, society and art. As Sleigh notes, the analogic structure is the hinge between the sciences and the literary arts: “Properly formed analogies were central to understanding the universe and to the composition of good poetry” (101). In fact, in her conclusion Sleigh suggests that virtually all myrmecological work was driven by analogy to human structures, even by scientists who resist such practice: a conclusion that might rub some readers – especially other scientists – the wrong way.

Literature and myrmecology are connected in ways that run deeper than metaphor and analogy, however. The study of ants has produced some of the most compelling theories of cybernetics, social organization and biology, as it has provided information on ways in which we might be “hardwired” for exchanges of information through language and other symbolic structures. Deeper still, there are philosophical connections that link interpretations of ant and human societies which Sleigh explores in her narrative. Many of the cultural movements and philosophies that she connects to entomology seem far in the past in terms of their social and academic relevance. But with the recent publication of Hölldobler’s and Wilson’s new book on the superorganism, it will be interesting to see if there is a resurgence in older philosophical ideas as the entomological theories are rediscovered. Certainly, Sleigh’s book provides an excellent resource for understanding the background of the historical connections between the study of ants and the study of humanity.

Janine Rogers, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada.