James P. Wind
In Lives of a Cell ( 1974), the late Lewis Thomas, one of our nation's most preeminent physicians, wrote about--among other things--the behavior of ants, termites, and bees. Such topics might seem out of place in a book about congregational affiliation, just as they seemed out of place on the pages of the August New England Journal of Medicine (where they were first published) or in the circles Dr. Thomas moved in as dean of the Yale School of Medicine or president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Thomas, who was a superb scientist as well as a gifted administrator, possessed a precious trait: he loved and was attentive to mystery. Hence he spent "moonlight" time as an essayist, trying to call his colleagues to the realm of wonder.
Which brings us to ants, bees, and termites. The solitary bug, say an ant, Thomas claimed, "can't be imagined to have a mind at all." A "ganglion on legs," this lone insect seems aimless and insignificant. Put four to ten of them together around a dead moth or a leaf and "they begin to look like an idea." Follow them home to the hill, where they mass in the thousands, becoming a black throbbing whole, and you "begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits" ( Thomas, 1974, pp. 12-13). Thomas the scientist, fascinated by the difference between individual and collective behavior, speculated on the role of pheromones (unnoticed chemical substances members of a species give off that stimulate behaviors of other members of that species) in releasing the energy of the hill, or the buzz of the hive. Then Thomas the essayist wondered about the likenesses between humans and these so-called lowly creatures. Taking his own research community as exhibit A, he noted how through their journals,