Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My grandson, ants, and E.O. Wilson

(If my grandson could speak English or if E.O. Wilson could speak Estonian, they would have a great conversation about ants.)

Last night I had a pleasure that only a grandfather who is a biologist with an interest in languages could appreciate.  My daughter was reading Harry Potter to her daughters on our deck.  Our 2-year old grandson became bored with that story (as I always do also), so he led me into my den where he demanded in perfect English to have a book to read.  He made no specific request, although he was pointing in the direction of my copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species.  Assuming that content would be a bit too esoteric for the kid, I chose one of my favorites: The Ants, by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson.  It is a large format book and as I let him try to carry it to the deck, where all this reading was going on, he screamed, again in English, "It's too heaby!"  So I toted the tome to the deck, where he promptly curled up at the foot of his mother's lounge chair and opened up the book.

He turned immediately to the chapter titled "Colony Odor and Kin Recognition" and began to read aloud as children often do, slowly turning the pages when he finished absorbing the information on each.  I realized that he was reading in the language with which each baby in the world is born speaking fluently, Estonian.  (See my blog where I laid out this hypothesis several weeks ago.)  My joy was unsurpassed as I listened to my daughter reading the silly fiction about wizards and ghouls in English, while my young grandson read what I believe to be the finest bioscience book published in the past 25 years, in Estonian.  Of course, the book was written in English, so my grandson must be translating as he goes.  That kid is destined to do great things, if he can just get over his fear of real ants.

When he had finished reading, he looked at me with an expression that conveys a mutual understanding between mentor and student.  He could have told me directly what he was thinking, but because I no longer understand Estonian (as we all lose the ability to do, except for those babies actually born in Estonia), he had to convey to me through manipulations of his facial muscles what he wanted to communicate.  Apparently my grandson had thought until he read that chapter that ants identified one another strictly through the tactile sense; he had no idea that they used the olfactory system as extensively as they do.  The fact that there are differences in the proportion of hydrocarbons among colonies and not just species, allowing for colony recognition, astounded him.  My grandson had not yet read the seminal paper by Bonavita-Cougourdan et al. (1987), who advanced this idea, although I will download it for him today.  My grandson is extremely disappointed that E.O. Wilson will be too old to accept new grad students at Harvard when the toddler is old enough to apply. 

Tonight, we will read before bedtime again, and my grandson will appear in my den ready to select.  This time, I will recommend one of my favorites, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I don't want this early education of his to focus too intently on the biological sciences, when there is so much good philosophy to study.  He is already in love with trucks and tractors, so a book about motorcycles should be right up his alley.