Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bee's Knees: Retirement, Leo Tolstoy, and the Consolation of Social Physiology

Leon Gerome Ferris. The Mayflower compact. 1899
A stirring passage about bees has been buzzing in my brain since I gleaned it at breakfast on Tuesday. The source is May Berenbaum’s review of two books about the social organization of ants and bees (TLS, 1.28.2011). Apparently, the big deal in the world of bees and, by analogy, among us, humans,  is when an over­populated hive spawns a colonizing  swarm of bees. The swarm is formed by the bees who have decided to strike out on their own; they leave as a swarm in search of a site to establish their new bee colony (think Mayflower).

As this swarm dangles form some tree limb, its special scout bees check out the adjacent territory. When they return, they communicate their finding to the swarm in a special dance. Here’s the passage that has been "buzzing" in my head since morning:

One point Seeley makes in his book is that scouts never blindly copy each other; each scout dances only to promote a site that she has inspected herself. Moreover, the intensity of promoting the site naturally decays over time – and individual scout will advocate for a site only for a limited amount of time and then will retire and rest. Both of these behaviours minimize the perpetuation of errors.

A swarm has left from a beehive and was standing on the branch of a tree.
What stung me was the precision with which this pattern fits what I know about the creative types among us humans. Pindar once likened the poet, who gathers inspiration from other poets, to a bee collecting pollen from different flowers to make his own honey ("Persephone's bees" of Osip Mandelstam). Leo Tolstoy, too, knew a thing or two about bees,. There is an ironic, down-to-earth echo of the Pindaric simile in Tolstoy's put-down of scholars: people who copy passages from many books by other authors into one notebook and then publish it as their own volume of scholarship. Apparently what Pindar admired Tolstoy put down in his always riveting, if nihilistic, dance. Of course, his own dance would have been impossible without his predecessors, and he knew it. Just think of his combining the French adultory novel and its opposite, English family novel into one Anna Karenina.

L.N. Tolstoy. Self-portrait. Photo. 1862. Collage by the author. 2011.
This impressive pedigree of the analogy between the bees and the humans notwithstanding, Seeley’s description rings louder and deeper still.

How many scout bees do you know among your friends, how many times have you seen them dance their unique dance to promote a new site for our hive thought to colonize that they discovered in their imagination? How much you admire their intensity only to register with sadness that it lasted “only for a limited amount of time” - before they, too, shuffled off to “retire and rest.” Apparently, not everything is lost! What a comfort it is to realize that there is a higher purpose to all of this odd and, in the light of common, practical wisdom, thankless behavior!

So next time your inspiration makes you think of yourself as bee's knees and you throw yourself into a dance, do not despair if your immediate audience is not moved. Even as your inner conviction decays over time and you "retire and rest" in fatigue and disappointment, be assured: you have made a contribution by putting a small dent in our species' perpetuation of errors

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Girls on Tanks or Twenty Years later

Twenty years ago in Moscow, especially at night, when the city's daytime roar turned to a steady rumble, I thought I could sense the earth's axis turning. Yes, yes, I know what was happening in Russia was not an isolated event. Solidarity had already triumphed in Poland, the Berlin Wall had been breached, and the US had won the cold war. Still, it was the fall of communism in Moscow -- the capital of the country where the "real twentieth century" began back in 1917 -- that carried enough political and symbolic weight to tilt the world's axis towards the new century. And so they began to sway and tumble down - the entrenched authoritarian modernizing regimes, the "old regimes" of the waning century. Not all of them and certainly not all at once, but by now, the trend is palpable.

Notwithstanding the differences, there is, then, a kinship between what is going on in Cairo today and happened in Moscow in August 1991. With the hindsight of Russia's experience over the last two decades, we can expect more similarities in the future. But for the moment, one can rejoice at the anticipated fall of Egypt's last Pharaoh.

Nothing suggests the deep similarity between the two revolutions better than the photos my daughter Anna emailed to me today, with the subject heading "When you know a regime has fallen..." One of the two, with little Anna on the tank, was taken by me on 21 August 1991 in Moscow, the other, of an Egyptian girl, by someone in Cairo today or yesterday. Guess which is which...

Do you sense the tilt, as the world keeps tumbling into the future?