What are social insects

University of KonstanzCluster of Excellence "Cultural Foundations of Integration"

NW: That always depends on the context in which you are currently interested. To take a few drastic examples now: Entomology in the Third Reich was required to use the ant model, for example, to confirm that the best and most efficient model that nature has produced is a totalitarian caste state. Today you would see it very differently. Today one would say: No, ants and bees are a role model for a swarm, for a collective without a center, for group behavior without hierarchies, without central control. Authors like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, on the other hand, use ants and bees as models for a post-communist collective in their books on “Multitude” or “Empire”. That is of course a completely different model of society that one is interested in. In ancient times one would find authors who say that the monarchy is the natural way in which society is organized.
Throughout cultural history, one would always find an interest in social insects that is very stable, but always with different models; it ranges from the total state to the anarchist collective, from the monarchy to the republic. There are the many recipes that Giovanni spoke of.

GG: We as biologists are actually interested in finding out objectively how the bee colony itself functions. Our goal is not to use the bee colony or the social insects as a mirror for our society, but rather we want to understand: How does communication work in the bee colony, which smells are used, which movements are used, which self-organizations in the distribution of individual tasks in the bee sowing arise?
Nevertheless, I would also be interested in the extent to which our view as scientists of social insects is shaped by what we see in our human society. Whether we take a certain direction in thinking about the life of bees or social insects, for example, which may put blinkers on us in other directions in judging, but certainly in asking questions.
What are we currently interested in in biological research? - I believe there is definitely an interaction in both directions; not only the biological knowledge, which is then taken as an image in the literature, but also the literary, social and sociological processing, which in turn influences the exciting questions that are posed to the animal in the biological working groups.

How do joint research and collaboration between the disciplines work here in Konstanz? Are they fruitful for one another?

NW: For me it was clearly a stroke of luck. I have a topic that is on the one hand cultural studies and knowledge-historical and has nothing to do with entomology for the first time, but the content requires that I look at all the entomological theories or ant research, because otherwise I cannot say anything useful about it. That is why it is extremely good for me when I can exchange ideas with several colleagues from the departments and find out that I have understood something completely wrongly or correctly. That is exactly what I needed now, namely the scientific expertise that, on the one hand, gets involved with my theses, but also tells me how their research works, what the status is and what I should read.
But I also believe that biologists are concerned with the cultural foundations of integration because they also ask how a community is created, what it is, what genetic and environmental factors there are, what kind of behavior leads to a community arises. That is exactly a question that worries the Cluster of Excellence. I do believe that it is very exciting to exchange ideas without falling into short-circuit analogies, which we have just rejected. There are research questions and problems that both disciplines have, so I find my work very fruitful.

GG: I believe that, in the end, good research is always central to disciplinary research. With all the hip and beauty of the interdisciplinary discourse, the central questions are always disciplinary questions, because you really want to go deep into central questions and you also need expert knowledge. But if you only do that, then you lose yourself. Then you have lost contact with the rest of the world and ultimately the meaning of what you are doing. And because of the architecture of the university, the short distances and the fact that the departments are very close together, but now also because of the Cluster of Excellence and the Zukunftskolleg, we have a lot more opportunities to constantly run into each other in Konstanz .
And in my opinion, this interdisciplinary discourse creates two levels: firstly, passive interdisciplinarity, i.e. the ability to speak in such a way that someone from another subject area understands you, and the ability to listen and understand someone from other scientific disciplines. However, this ability does not just come overnight, but through the fact that you keep talking to each other and exchanging ideas and trying again and again to understand why certain questions are being asked. This understanding for one another is the first level and I believe the most important level of interdisciplinarity. If you have that, then again and again individual bridges arise where you want to work together and realize a joint project. In addition, there is an understanding of how the rest of the world sees your own discipline and where you are currently moving. This understanding comes about through the exchange between the cluster, Zukunftskolleg and graduate school, and I find that incredibly fascinating.

Questions: Sigrid Elmer and Jürgen Graf