Terry Fowler

Termites, Politics, and Biology

Modern biology is discovering that microscopic cells communicate with each other and self-organize in astonishingly intelligent ways. They are not directed from above but cooperate locally and spontaneously to meet constant challenges to the integrity of the organism, at both the micro and macro levels. This observation is part of a remarkable article by Stephen Talbott, called “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.” Contrary to the traditional view that the human brain sends directives to all parts of the body before they can do anything at all, microbiologists now say there is mental activity everywhere in the body.

However, much of microbiology is still stuck in the metaphor of the machine. Talbott’s informal survey of technical articles found that “mechanism,” “mechanics,” and similar terms permeated discussions of genetic mapping, cellular pathways, and protein metamorphosis.

And therein lies an irony, or, if you will, a miracle. For, unlike machines, organisms – whether they are tiny or immense – are intricately involved in supporting each other at every possible level. In a bioregion, at least one left undisturbed by humans, we have discovered that plants and animals have evolved mutually beneficial patterns of behaviour that ensure each other’s survival, and not only survival but evolution and development.

One recently discovered example of this phenomenon is the so-called fairy circle in Southern Africa. Much of the area contains near-desert grasslands. On the edges of the driest regions, where rainfall hovers around ten centimentres a year, grass usually struggles to lift its blades above the sand. However, in some places there are bare circles of sand, anywhere from 4 to 50 metres across, bordered by a ring of tall grass, much more lush than grass a few paces away.

It turns out that members of a certain species of termites have eaten away the grass in the centre of the circles, so that when it does rain the water seeps down half a metre through the porous, bare sand. Here the water does not evaporate in the sun but pools to feed the roots of the grasses on the edges of the sandy patch. One is reminded of a medieval monk with a bald pate except for a fringe of hair around the ears and neck.

Sand termites are responsible for hundreds of these fairy circles throughout Namibia, Angola, and the northern parts of South Africa. The circles, by conserving water and encouraging grass, support herds belonging to indigenous peoples and promote biodiversity.

Here’s the thing: nobody told these termites that they had to make fairy circles, or even that it would be a good idea and why not try it out. Besides, where would such direction come from? The herders? They don’t speak termite. The grasses? Wild animals provided with new grazing territory? In fact, to speak of the politics of fairy circles makes no sense to us. I think there is a lesson here for the human animal. Getting things done collectively, for the public good – which might be an especially broad definition of politics – need not require political parties, lobbyists, elections, legislation, administrators, or even benevolent dictators.

From genes and micro-organisms, to termites and elephants, life forms in nature are constantly cooperating, inventing, negotiating – everywhere. In the words of Stephen Talbott,

Ever more sophisticated experimental techniques have been revealing organisms of meaning whose wisdom and subtlety, whose powers of development and adaptation, whose perceptive insight and effective communication, and whose evolutionary ingenuity far outstrip our current capacities for comprehension. We humans discover our conscious, inner capacities unconsciously reflected back to us from every metabolic process we study.

And, Talbott adds, “This matters in a world whose future has been placed in our hands.”

I would put it differently. All this matters because we have been behaving stupidly and we could well produce a situation in which only a few of us will survive. Avoiding disaster will depend on our understanding nature’s way of getting things done. The earth’s biosphere is resilient and will endure long after we have made it uninhabitable for ourselves, or at least for so many billions of us.

But we still have an opportunity to start acting together more imaginatively to solve the problems we have created. Some people are doing it. Towns and cities all over the world are adopting practices to wean themselves off fossil fuels. They are called Transition Towns and all their transformative activity is generated from the ground up, in small groups around kitchen tables.

There are even government officials from many different agencies and levels of government who have formed ad hoc groups to allocate resources and hammer out “policy” independent of formal institutions.

Outside of government, there are over a million citizens’ groups of every possible description who network at the World Social Forum every year with no leaders or policy pronouncements – they simply get together and work out different ways of cooperating with each other.

These are examples of spontaneous self-organization, of horizontal cooperation that emerged without direction from above. A group of people contacted each other because enough of them saw a need for action, and they joined – as equals – to meet that need. Contrast this coming together with something such as the Climate Summit, where representatives of national governments gather every year to do nothing about climate change. Fixated on the power politics among states of vastly different sizes and global influence, and mired in internal national politics, these delegates have no hope of coming up with any real shift in their countries’ energy and emission policies. The only significant progress on climate change is coming from local and regional governments, often spontaneously cooperating with each other.

Notice how this local government behaviour resembles that of the sand termites, working at creating places that support their own health and that of other species as well, right on the edges of lifelessness.

Biology is suggesting that each of us has the capability to engage ourselves in the natural world’s no-nonsense politics, which might stop our headlong rush toward self-destruction. It is a simple remembering that we are inescapably part of the rest of nature, not a separated species entitled to explore her for our own selfish purposes, and unconnected to a biosphere which has developed extremely sophisticated ways of solving its problems.

Brunet-Jailly, Emmanuel, “Municipal Central Relations in France: Between Decentralization and Multi-Level Governance,” in Harvey Lazar and Christian Leuprecht (eds), Spheres of Governance: Comparative Studies of Cities in Multi-Level Governance Systems, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2007, 125-162
C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Climate Action in Megacities: C40 Cities Baseline and Opportunities, Arup, June 2011
Clark, Susan, and Woden Teachout, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2012.
_______________, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 39:3 (September 2006), 481-506.
Talbott, Stephen, The Nature Institute, http://www.natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/genome_5.htmttt, http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic28/organism_meaning.pdf
Wilford, John Noble, “African Circle Mystery Solved? Maybe It’s Chewing,” New York Times, March 28 2013.