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Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. Each week, we’ll be joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.

12/05/2018 | Episode 003 | 40:46

Innovation in the Burg: Deby Cassill & Randy Russell

Humanity in ants: What can ants teach us about diversity, equity and human behavior?

Welcome to Innovation in the 'Burg, a podcast all about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. This week, Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District, hosts USFSP Professor Deby Cassill and Randy Russell, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. Cassill, an expert in ant behavior, shares her wisdom on the ways ants work together, care for one another, and interact with strangers. A fascinating conversation ensues on the abundant lessons to be learned from ant behavior.

Key Insights

  • Today's expert: Deby Cassill - "Deby is an Associate Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. She's an expert on ants and their behavior."
  • Today's community member: Randy Russell - "Randy is the founding president and CEO of the Foundation for Healthy Saint Petersburg. He's passionate about using the private and public sector resources to create systematic and community change."
  • Biological diversity in ants: "The thing that really drew me into it was the enormous diversity of ants in the family. Mom, the Queen, is 50 times larger than her smallest daughters. The daughters live three to six months, they die. The Queen can live 10 to 45 years. So my question has always been why the inequality, why the diversity? And it has applications to humans as well."
  • Ant lessons end to humans, "If you expose an ant to a neighbor, within an hour or two, they’re getting along. So what’s really important among human groups is that exposure with somebody who’s different."
  • Deby has performed many experiments with ants, one in regards to familiarity and digging behavior: "I put some ants in some sand, and three different groups - one group with all family members, all sisters, the second group was near neighbors, and the third group were strangers."
  • As it turns out, the ants who did the most digging were the near-neighbors. "The family members dug just enough and then they cozied up together and hung out, and did some chatting but no digging."
  • "The strangers who'd never been in contact with each other, these are just family groups colonies, one from Tallahassee one from here, they fought to the death. No work got done because they were all dead within 24 hours."
  • The Foundation's Center for Social Change: "we’re creating is a center that invites that very thing. If you have an idea to make anything different or a topic you wanted to explore. Then our job is to supply you with data and research, fuel your curiosity, and create the space for you to come safely and with open arms to say tell us what you want to be different and we’ll try to figure out how to help."
  • Oxytocin - the hormone that creates feelings of love and bonding - is found in ants, too: "If they didn't have oxytocin, these little sterile daughters that the Queen produces, the little workers that we either love or hate in our home, they would not care for their sisters, they would not go get food, bring it back to the family and feed the family."
  • Distributed intelligence: No one ant knows the whole of what needs to be done, "distributed communication and distributed IQ, if you will, is how big jobs get done by little individuals."
  • The Foundation seeks, multi-sector, collaborative decision making. According to Randy, "distributed IQ is really what multi-sector, collaborative decision-making is about."
  • Deby's upcoming work, "I’m expanding from ants and getting into maternal investment. It turns out, across the animal kingdom, only females produce offspring, and how many should they produce, how big should they be, and what's the role of males in caring for the offspring if there is any."
  • "war occurs not because the ants want to fight but because the Queen tells them to fight. She turns on something like testosterone. The ants are grooming and they immediately go on the hunt for any individuals not a family member."
  • Ant reproduction is determined by the Queen ant herself. "So she produces three kinds of offspring. One are virgin Queens, soon-to-be Queens but unmated. Sons, they both have wings. And then she produces these little sterile daughters."
  • Lessons learned from ants: " We can communicate with the world and it's probably going to save us because if we become familiar enough with the rest of the world, over time we will fear it less and we will have commanders, where, if they start a war, we may be a little less likely to follow them."
  • Deby is inspired by, "Edward Osborne Wilson, who has written, I don't know, 15 books on ants and religion; what they have in common."
  • Randy is inspired by community organizers and social change leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Saul Alinsky, and the early organizers of the social work movement.

We like diversity. Diversity is a really important thing for any social organism. What's important is that we’re not mistreated and that we’re cared for equally, that were valued, even though we’re different.

At any given point, over 50% of the ant family or the colony is not working – they’re sleeping, they’re hanging out, they’re grooming. But when there’s a catastrophe, everybody participates to help.

 

Table of Contents

(0:00 – 2:44) Introduction

(2:44 – 6:10) Diversity and Equity in Ants

(6:10 – 11:27) Territorialism and Communal Connection

(11:27 – 13:17) Maternal Care in Ants

(13:17 – 15:55) Distributed Intelligence

(15:55 – 17:54) Bad Day in Studying Ants

(17:54 – 19:06) Judgment among Ants

(19:06 – 21:16) Future Plans and Researches

(21:16 – 24:14) Communicating to Repair Ant Colonies

(24:14 – 26:07) Queen Ant Reproduction

(26:07 – 30:22) Losing Love and Camaraderie

(30:22 – 34:12) Inspirations

(34:12 – 36:00) Solving Diseases in a Colony

(36:00 – 38:14) Fairness Quality in Ants and Primates

(38:14 – 39:21) Getting Information

(39:21 – 40:05) Creating Function and Location

(40:05 – 40:46) Conclusion

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about Science and Innovation in Saint Petersburg. If you are self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. I’m Alison Barlow, Executive Director of the St. Pete Innovation District. Each podcast I’m joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they are working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and don’t become too technical, we have community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy the conversation.

 

Alison: Let me introduce today’s guest – our expert is Deby Cassill. Deby is an Associate Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. She’s an expert on ants and their behavior. Her research has been widely published in journals; she’s spoken at TEDx Events and filmed a BBC documentary, I found out. I want to share a quote about Deby that was in the 2015 Tampa Bay Times article. “Deby is adamant that ants are more like humans than most people are willing to consider. She has said loyalty and gentleness when she looks at the ants. And like humans, ant families go to war with each other over territory.” Our community member is Randy Russell. Randy is the founding president and CEO of the Foundation for Healthy Saint Petersburg. He’s passionate about using the private and public sector resources to create systematic and community change. Over the past three and half years, the Foundation has had direct and lasting impact in South Pinellas County. On one fun note, I found out while we’re preparing for this, that Randy had an ant farm as a kid. For 10 years or something, Randy?

Randy: Yeah.

Alison: So, we’ll definitely find out more about that. So, Deby, first, how did you get started with ants?  

Deby: I was a kid, my brothers got guns, they went off to the woods. I went into the garden and I saw far more interesting animal behaviors in the garden than my brothers ever did out in the woods hunting.

Alison: So, that got you started?

Deby: That got me hooked. Anything that moves, I could be talking to the President of the United States and if there were a bug on the wall, my attention would go to bug on the wall.

Alison: And it’s always been ants, no other bugs?

Deby: I like butterflies – they are pretty but ants are social and the rate of interaction is much higher with ants, and so there’s just way more stories to tell.

Alison: What kinds of things have you learned from your research?

Deby: The thing that really drew me into it was the enormous diversity of ants in the family. Mom, the Queen, is 50 times larger than her smallest daughters. The daughters live three to six months, they die. The Queen can live 10 to 45 years. So my question has always been why the inequality, why the diversity? And it has applications to humans as well.

Alison: That’s interesting because when I first met you, and we were talking about preparing for this, I thought, “Well, I don’t know where we’re gonna take a conversation about ants to.” And honestly, I wasn’t sure it’s gonna be that interesting. Sorry. But it’s really fascinating to me when you start talking about the similarities between ants and people.

Deby: Well, here’s what I’ve learned is that no matter how small that ant is cared for by family members. If it’s injured, it’s cared for; if it’s tired, it’s sheltered, and if there’s a catastrophe everybody participates. Not equally but everyone participates.

Randy: So what is the translation here? Because there’s an interest in thinking about this equity and the roles. So, I’m hearing a little bit of description from a sociology kind of or a culture point-of-view from a community dweller that tribes are real and that tribes work together, and that there’s a kindness there that’s inherent, how do you measure that and is that what I’m hearing?

Deby: So the question is equity. And what I’ve come to think about and realize is that we don’t all wanna be equal – clones. We like diversity. Diversity is a really important thing for any social organism. What’s important is that we’re not mistreated and that we’re cared for equally, that were valued, even though we’re different. We just need to appreciate the differences and value the differences and make sure that everyone, when there’s a need, that everyone has access to help.

Randy: So, it sounds like there’s a confusion between equity and diversity so that idea… So, it’s not an uncommon thought to sort of understand a diverse world where everyone does have that equal ability, but are discriminatory and segregation practices used?

Deby: Not in the ant world, ever, within the family the family of ants. And humans are unique and that we extend the family to a neighborhood, to a community, to a university, to a job. I mean, we bond very quickly with neighbors. Ants do as well; they’re a little… they can be a little aggressive and fearful and damaging to strangers. But on the whole… and that’s just the reality – they’re territorial.

Alison: Well, sometimes, humans are too.

Deby: Oh, they go to war.

Randy: So this going to war and territorialism coupled with this communal connection, how do those two manifest because I’m going down this path of segregation and discrimination that were choices made to say you are better than you are less than both gender and race and so that whole part of our history, what can we learn from what the animal kingdom is teaching us, from what ants are teaching us about. Is that the difference that we have choice, that instinctively and biologically that it would not occur, but because we have choice is that what you think?

Deby: Here’s what I’ve really learned with the ants, it’s a really good question. If you expose an ant to a neighbor, within an hour or two, they’re getting along. So what’s really important among human groups is that exposure with somebody who’s different and education, higher education is really where that can happen – where we mix people with different gender, different race, different income levels, different hair color, eye color, skin color. As we’re growing up, to have that mixture is really, really important.

Randy: And how do we see that in ants, though?

Deby: Oh, well, ants actually visit each other. They establish territories, but they go into each other’s territory and after a while, they gain the scent and the identity of the neighbor and they do just fine. Here’s a really cool experiment that I did; I love this. I put some ants in some sand, and three different groups – one group with all family members, all sisters, the second group was near neighbors, and the third group were strangers.

Deby: And I left them in the sandy thing, replicated it many times, that’s what we do in science, and looked to see who did the most digging. I’m gonna ask you, family members, near neighbors or strangers, which group did the most digging, do you think?

Randy: Strangers.

Alison: Family?

Deby: I would’ve guessed family, Alison. Nobody’s ever guessed strangers. Good guess. In fact, it was near neighbors. Here’s what happened. The family members dug just enough and then they cozied up together and hung out, and did some chatting but no digging.

Alison: Had a little party.

Deby: Yeah. The strangers who’d never been in contact with each other, these are just family groups colonies, one from Tallahassee one from here, they fought to the death. No work got done because they were all dead within 24 hours. The middle group, where they have had contact, they weren’t family but they had to have contact with each other, they were a little agitated, it took a little while to get comfortable but they were… it was that urgency and that drive to dig and be safe, and they just went to town. We do that with humans. We are far more likely to be working with a stranger than a family member.

Randy: Absolutely.

Deby: And we work harder for it, I think.

Randy: Fascinating in this two ways – one, being the threat of difference is biologic.

Deby: It is. We are hardwired to fear the unknown and again, that’s why it’s so important to do these communication links that you all are working on; why it’s so important to bring family members into new environments and travel, clubs, and just get to know your neighbor, and lose that fear.

Alison: And the interesting thing, and it ties to what Randy is working on, is Randy immediately makes me think of what the foundation’s about to do and the southern part of St. Pete with the social…

Randy: The Center for Social Change. So, this is the idea and so I want to take your experiment, and deconstruct it in a live lab and see if there’s correlations that you draw from your research. The instinct in the social science world has a few principles to it – that there’s wisdom in the community, that no problem gets solved by one group alone, that there’s gotta be multiple players in the group with multiple diverse views or differences of opinion. And that one inherent thing we all really truly wanted a heart level is really more about equity than we’re willing to admit, right?

Deby: It’s about being appreciated for our differences, is how I think about it.

Randy: That’s a good way, I like that. So what we’re creating is a center that invites that very thing. If you have an idea to make anything different or a topic you wanted to explore. Then our job is to supply you with data and research, fuel your curiosity, and create the space for you to come safely and with open arms to say tell us what you want to be different and we’ll try to figure out how to help.

Deby: And the open arms is such an important message that you’re bringing to the community.

Randy: Why?

Deby: Oh my gosh! All organisms thrive better when they feel part of a greater group. And it starts with…

Randy: How do we know that?

Deby: …maternal care. Oh, actually, don’t get me started but…

Randy: (laughs) I want you to get started.

Alison: Yeah, go for it. Because this sounds like he’s creating your middle group that you were talking about before.

Randy: Yeah, exactly.

[12:00]

Alison: That little sandpit, that’s your new sandpit.

Randy: Yeah, but we’re not doing this much digging as maybe we should.

Deby: Yeah. Well, we’ll get there. So it turns out there’s a molecule, a chemical in our brain called oxytocin; it’s kind of a hormone. It’s what turns on love, bonding, and we’re finding it in ants. If they didn’t have oxytocin, these little sterile daughters that the Queen produces, the little workers that we either love or hate in our home, they would not care for their sisters, they would not go get food, bring it back to the family and feed the family. It’s the sense of well-being and it’s been known in healthcare that you have a much better outcome from a surgery or an injury based on your emotional well-being than on your physical well-being or your age. And that ability to relax and feel comfortable with family members is what keeps us bonded.

Randy: That’s really remarkable when you think about the wisdom that is just present in the teeniest of live things.

Deby: I wanna talk about distributed intelligence.

Randy: Please do.

Deby: No one individual knows the whole… knows everything that needs to be done.

Alison: Is this true in the ants?

Deby: It’s true in ants and true in humans, too. So, if you distribute, if we have differences and everybody’s kind of doing their thing, and they’re never doing it equally. But that distributed communication and distributed IQ, if you will, is how big jobs get done by little individuals.

Randy: I love that.

Deby: And we’re little but we can get…

Randy: It is so applicable distributed IQ is really what multi-sector, collaborative decision-making is about.

Deby: Absolutely.

Randy: Yeah, it’s perfect.

Deby: And that communication, that link, that’s what we do in education is communicate – teach our students to communicate.

Alison: I think I saw in your lab you had video of ants moving things and working in teams, essentially.

Deby: Right. The idea of teamwork is it’s not an ideal, “Oh, you’re helping me, I’m helping you.” Kind of thing. It’s, “Oh, I like to work. I see something that I can do. I’m gonna do it.” And everybody out there doing their own little thing, a job gets done. And it’s just like we have a contractor, that would be the Queen, he reads the blueprint, he’s kinda telling the workers what needs to be done and what time but really the workers in constructing a building or a condo or a new lake, maybe. Each of them has a job and they know what the job is, and they kinda look around. They figure it out. They kinda figure it out as they go, given a certain skill set.

Randy: So, each individual entity is figuring out, is problem-solving to sort out a role that they can play where they are right for a result that they can figure out and see.

Deby: At the very local level.

Randy: Wow! Wow! Wow!

Alison: Interesting.

Randy: So much wisdom, right? So that, I think, is what we mean when we say the wisdom is in the community.

Deby: At the community level and at the individual level. It cannot discount – see it wisdom at all levels. It cannot discount the ability of these little creatures either us or the ants to make a decision right in the moment. I am hungry, I’m gonna go get food, I’m gonna share it. I’m tired, I’m gonna take a nap.

Randy: Awesome.

Alison: So, I have a question for Deby which is, what’s a bad day in the study of ants?

Deby: Oh, for me or for the ants? (Laughs)

Alison: Both. Because I think this might tie to actually what’s a bad day in collaboration with people.

Deby: That’s a really cool question.

Randy: I’ll answer the people part first.

Deby: Yeah, go for it.

Alison: Oh, that’s great.

Randy: Which is a bad day is when you forget you’re an ant; it’s when you think you’re something else like there’s a fixed attachment to an outcome that, when you try to collaborate doesn’t work. So if you walked in the door with an agenda, to make it concrete, then the collaboration cannot reach very far. Because you have a need that isn’t a group need and the second collaboration turns to individual need is that.

Alison: So, you walk in the door, not being an ant, it’s gonna be part of the collaboration but a butterfly.

Randy: Exactly. And decide I’m not an ant, I’m a butterfly; and therefore, I’m not gonna play by the ants rules and collaboration that is what I can get out of this. So power dynamics in sociology and social movement is really what we’re interested in because it’s the power that flips the agenda. If everybody could walk through the door and sign in saying, “I commit to the bigger question instead of my needs,” that would be the way. So, I’m wondering if it’s reflected in what you study.

Deby: Here’s – brilliant question and comment – that would be one large difference between ants and humans. Ants don’t judge other ants.

Alison: Oh, that’s true. They can still judge, do they?

Randy: Oh, I love that!

Deby: They just kinda do their thing.

Randy: That’s the answer.

Alison: So if you don’t, if you flake and you say, “I’m not gonna be an ant today,” they don’t do anything to you.

Deby: No, there’s no judgment, no punishment. There’s just, “This is what I can offer,” and they do the best they can at any given moment. Humans way different – very judgmental.

Randy: So the hierarchical… is it the hierarchical stuff that starts to disappear?

Randy: Meaning, in our Western United States, Western world, there is the hierarchy rules, bureaucracy and governance. In the ant world, too, is replicated. There are layers, roles, power dynamics, decision-makers, and doers, right? So, all that’s there. So is part of the difference the spiritual part of this? And what I mean by that is, the judgment part also implies something more than… I’m not sure how I’m asking this question, but there’s something more than the humans might have that ants don’t. So I’m wondering what that is that gets us to judgment.

Deby: Yeah.

Randy: If ants don’t have judgment and we do, so what is it that humans that’s different?

Deby: Why is it that we have it?

Randy: Yeah.

Deby: And where did it come from? You’ve given me a whole new question that I’m going – it’s like an itch – I’m going to be exploring that. I can’t come up with an answer for you right now.

Randy: Isn’t it fascinating? I have a question for you. What research do you want to do right now, if that’s an itch, what’s a scratch? What are you really interested in doing right now and what’s next on the horizon for you?

Deby: Okay, so I’m expanding from ants and getting into maternal investment. It turns out, across the animal kingdom, only females produce offspring, and how many should they produce, how big should they be, and what’s the role of males in caring for the offspring if there is any. So I’m working on a paper right that 3 billion years ago, when light started earth was all-female planet and males didn’t come around till about a half a million years ago. You are the first two people to hear that.

Alison: Interesting. And now you’re trying to prove it?

Deby: Well, I’m writing the paper and putting together some ideas that just have been out there but nobody’s paying attention to.

Alison: Okay.

Deby: So, really speaks to the divergent roles of male and female and that gets back to your idea of equality or equity. In fact, the diversity is really what makes social organisms hum and work. And we just don’t want to be mistreated differently; we would want to be… We want to celebrate our differences, encourage differences, encourage communication, and encourage equitable access to resources, healthcare, transportation…

Randy: Income, etc.

Deby: And income. But you can’t take away that urgency, that drive, that motivation to do more.

Randy: When damage is done to an ant colony, how does it repair itself? When there’s been a war, how does it repair itself? What is resilience show up like?

Deby: Okay, good question. There’s war, there’s a 9/11 to their home when a cow steps on their nest or we hit it with a…

Randy: Mower.

Deby: Mower, land mower. And there are floods. At any given point, over 50% of the ant family or the colony is not working – they’re sleeping, they’re hanging out, they’re grooming. But when there’s a catastrophe, everybody participates to help. They will build a raft and float their way out of the flood. They will…

Randy: Really?

Deby: …repair. Yeah.

Randy: And everybody knows what their job is to put the twigs together to be able to have people to climb on and float away.

Deby: Yeah, they do. They just figure it out, grab hands. But getting to war, war occurs not because the ants want to fight but because the Queen tells them to fight. She turns on something like testosterone. The ants are grooming and they immediately go on the hunt for any individuals not a family member.

Randy: How does that transmit?

Deby: How did they kill each other?

Randy: How does the Queen communicate?

Alison: Like how do they know? How does the Queen tell everybody?

Randy: How does everybody know the Queen’s got testosterone? What does that feel like to the person, right? I’m sitting here grooming and suddenly, I’m killing people. How does that happen?

Alison: They’ve flipped a switch. Isn’t that like Walking Dead or something?

Deby: It’s all up in the brain. And we’re just the… how we behave and why we behave, and when we behave is all brain. The Egyptians thought it was just a bag of fat, they threw it out, they kept the heart and stomach but they threw the brain out during mummification. We’re realizing over in the last maybe two decades, 20 years how important and how brain is run on chemistry. And so the testosterone that she produces is, it’s coming winter food’s going to be scarce, and so we need to expand our territory, and she turns this testos- she has tons to glands – turns testosterone on, it’s leaking out of her body. The ants, the daughters are licking it up, and it’s turning on aggression and they start marching.

Deby: It’s like waving the flag or the trumpet.

Alison: That’s just fascinating because it’s just coming through her pores – well, pores if it was a human.

Deby: Yeah, exactly.

Alison: But that’s fascinating.

Randy: So, where’s the next Queen bee – I mean, Queen ant come from? How does she produce different size ants?

Deby: I can’t believe you’re asking these really cool questions.

Randy: Gosh, it’s fascinating.

Deby: So she produces three kinds of offspring. One are virgin Queens, soon-to-be Queens but unmated. Sons, they both have wings. And then she produces these little sterile daughters. The daughters, like I said earlier, live a very short lifespan. They work, work, work. Sleep about two hours a day; the Queen sleeps about nine hours a day, lots of naps. In the spring, the virgin Queens and the virgin sons fly off, mate, and start their own family. A fire ant Queen will produce maybe five thousand virgins every spring.

Alison: Oh wow.

Deby: But over the year, she’ll 300,000 of these little sterile daughters. I wouldn’t want to be that kind of mom; that’s pumping out a lot of eggs. You know what I mean? Not exactly my thing. But she produces – she determines when to produce males, when to produce females and which of her daughters will be the sterile small worker, die young, and which will the virgin Queens that will fly out.

Alison: So, she determines it?

Deby: Mm-hmm.

Randy: That’s pretty amazing.

Alison: That is amazing. I can’t even…wow!

Deby: Yeah, and it’s all about her own survival.

Alison: Right. She’s very…

Deby: She’s the CEO.

Alison: Yeah.

Randy: In evolution and in the construct of evolution, even almost spiritually, and I’m thinking about the spiritual mirror that biology has.

Randy: So there’s this creation of a being or an entity that is required to have a colony, biologically and functionally. And the same is true for that part of humans who need a spiritual out-calling or an outlet. So the deconstruction of Buddhism is also fascinating because it deconstructs it all the way down to the very level you’re talking about and each individual little single spark of energy is life. So that construct, how did we forget that? I guess, it’s one of the parts of humanity and that judgment part we were talking about earlier.

Deby: Where is it that we lose that sense of camaraderie and love?

Randy: Because it’s inherent.

Deby: It is. In every animal.

Randy: We’re really clear it’s inherent. We can even feel it when any human sees another baby. There is no one who can be mad at the baby, I mean, it’s just not possible.

Alison: Like my friend always said, they’re cute for a reason.

Deby: (Laughs) That is so true.

Randy: Then make them be three years old and all of a sudden that judgment starts to happen and then you know that’s not a very good parent. They should’ve kept that baby quiet while I was eating it. Whatever the issues are.

Alison: Yeah, in that way, you’re right because it pivots. That baby is no longer cute and adorable is now annoying and…

Randy: An irritant in my world; my world becomes way more important than the collective. That’s the choice – it feels like there’s a choice in their cultures make. And not every culture in the world does it as extreme as we do, I think. So that’s why it’s interesting. If you interrupted a colony and interrupted meaning you divided the colony in half or thirds, or whatever it might be how do they handle that?

Deby: At the local level, they’re really not even aware of it. And it would be like, I don’t know, Clearwater vacating itself.

Deby: I would never know without mass communication, and ants really don’t have much in the way of mass communication except for an alarm, a chemical we call, a pheromone. They kind of go about their own… At the local community level, they kind of go about their own way. If they’re hungry enough and nobody’s bringing food in, they’ll leave and they’ll start searching for food till they find it, they’ll fill up… they have a social stomach. So we’re different in that respect, that we, especially with television, and computers, and phones now. We can communicate with the world and it’s probably going to save us because if we become familiar enough with the rest of the world, over time we will fear it less and we will have commanders, where, if they start a war, we may be a little less likely to follow them. I think that’s a good thing.

Alison: But that goes back to what you’re talking about – neighbors. And the ants who are neighbors being able to produce, dig more.

Deby: Yeah, they work, they get along, in a way that strangers don’t. I mean, humans are an experiment on earth. There’s been nothing like us, ever, on earth.

Randy: Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Deby: And we’ve never had access to the amount of energy that we have, food that we have, protection that we have, and this… Again, this ability to communicate at face-to-face on a telephone and get to know people that can be thousands of miles away, it’s unprecedented.

Randy: And we don’t know how to use it. And I wonder how we inculcate our technology into our social and cultural needs, right?

Deby: Well, that’s where this conversation and what you two are doing is really important. It’s bringing information to the rest of the community as much as you can and I commend you for that.

Alison: I think getting people aware of some of the similarities, the fact that you can take lessons from an ant, right? And into a human pattern and human behavior is really fascinating. Let me switch gears for second. Who inspires you out in the community or in the scientific world? Who do you watch?

Deby: Oh, EO – Edward Osborne Wilson, who has written, I don’t know, 15 books on ants and religion; what they have in common. Consilience, absolutely. Scientists and religious leaders, he said, “We both want the same thing – a better world. Let’s talk.” What else has he written? And he started out as an ant person.

Alison: Did he? He’s like inspiration.

Deby: It’s like a lens; you watch ants, and you learn about the world.

Randy: It’s a little bit Zen.

Deby: It is very Zen.

Randy: There’s very deeply spiritual component that I’m hearing almost because it is a compelling story you see unfolding. Is there any fear that this is projection?

Deby: Projection?

Randy: The psychological reference. Meaning, are you projecting what you want to see?

Deby: Oh, I think we’re all subject to that.

Randy: It’s not perfect, right?

Deby: Scientists are just as biased in their thinking as anybody would be.

Randy: That’s why I think it’s important to say it just to say it, but it is also true that that’s a part of it. So, the rigor you’re able to use is as good as we got, right? In sort of what you can get to.

Deby: Yeah, I can take a group of ants and give them the same conditions and replicate it, maybe 10 to 15 times and look at the average. You look at anything once, you can’t really generalize it. That’s a scientific method, not that we need to get into that.

Alison: Well, I’m gonna ask Randy. Who inspires you or who would Deby maybe need to check out from your perspective?

Randy: Well, there’s no secrets to as to who these people are I don’t think. But community organizers and social change leaders. So, Dr. King is the most well-known in the sense of how he understood a narrative and a way to galvanize people that is missing. We’ve missed those people. The early, sort of, the idea in the centuries that affect our current lives most, which would be the 1900s on, I think, but you think about Saul Alinsky is one of the ones I point to. Saul was one of the early community organizers that really was not, perhaps, using techniques that we would use today but had the same sense that you sit and listen to people. And they give you information, and you take that information and seek change. It’s the same idea as the early settlement houses and social work movements, they kind of got people to understand poverty exists and we can’t have people like the book, The Jungle. So, it’s the people who lived those environments and then sought for change, and led change, that just always inspires me. It’s really remarkable that it takes the leader to galvanize. So, in a bit, there’s thing or this theory of part of the center we’re creating it that I hope comes to truth is, I watched a bunch of times when you think about everything from interracial marriage to abortion rights, and what that all looks like somebody plucked the issue; somebody tenaciously stuck with it, and somebody figured out how to justify and support it to make it reach a decision.

Randy: So it always requires a specific definition and a specific pullout. But I’m wondering if, if disease happens in an ant colony, if this is sort of the same kind of thing, is there a way that…how do they solve a problem like that?

Deby: That’s a fascinating question. So name a disease for me. Cancer is not really what you’re talking about.

Randy: No, let’s take the plague.

Deby: The plague.

Randy: The flea-invested rat plague.

Deby: So, what happened was, they separated people and quarantined them in fear not knowing what the vector of transmission was. In ants, they do have funguses growing, they have bacterial infections, they get wounded. They’re always taken in – if it’s something that spreads, then and a bunch die; it’s just the way it is because they’re not gonna not treat an injured family member or a sick or diseased family member. And it may end up killing the whole colony.

Randy: But they’re not gonna isolate, they’re not gonna separate them?

Deby: They’re not gonna isolate; they will not ignore.

Alison: Interesting. So, they allow that ant to stay in the colony…

Deby: Back in the colony. Now occasionally, depending on the disease or the infection, oftentimes the worker will just leave.

Alison: Okay. They’ll select to leave.

Deby: They will electively leave the family and go off and die.

Randy: Amazing.

Randy: Well, I came to that because this question about who inspires us at the Foundation and certainly me, but it’s that idea of what is inspiring is what’s what needs fixing because it’s not fair, there’s a fairness quality to what we’re working on in a justice quality. Is that translatable?

Deby: There is no fairness issue in ants. Not one ant is gonna say, “I’ve been treated unfairly.” That’s unique, I think, to humans and other primates, actually.

Randy: Apes, right?

Deby: Bonobos, there have been some wonderful work. I can’t think of his name but up in Emory. On bonobos, and two primates are given a puzzle to solve, they both solve it one gets really juicy grape and the other gets a carrot. And the one who gets the carrot, throws it down, goes in the corner, and sulks.

Alison: (Laughs) That’s a person.

Deby: So it’s, again, that would be a big difference between ants and primates of which we are one. That we are much more judgmental and much more aware of this fairness issue than the ants.

Randy: How long will evolution take for us to understand how to deploy that very amazing gift we have – judge and assess? So I wonder, in the invitation world, are there celebrations and rituals?

Deby: Oh, in the ant world?

Randy: Yeah! People need that, right? People like to celebrate; we’re about that Thanksgiving.

Deby: It’s how we bond.

Randy: It’s how we bond, and so I’m wondering about…

Deby: Drums, singing, uniforms, marching, food, rituals. This is such a fascinating question, conversation because you’re bringing up a lot of issues where I’m seeing major differences between ants. There are no rituals that I can think of.

Alison: They just don’t exist. It’s not part of their…

Deby: They don’t exist. Yeah, they’re much more basic – food, shelter, love.

Randy: Yup, wonderful.

Alison: So, we’re running time, before we conclude the podcast, because these always go so fast, don’t they? Is to ask you, Deby, if somebody wants to know more about this, what should they do, where should they go?

Deby: About what I do or ants in general?

Alison: Either one.

Deby: Okay. Google Deby Casill. I’ve got lots of stuff out there, lots of papers.

Alison: You had a couple of cool TEDx Talk stuff.

Deby: I do.

Alison: So, if somebody wants to see some brief visuals.

Deby: Right. But the really fun place to go for anything about ants would be YouTube.

Alison: Okay.

Deby: Some just amazing things.

Alison: Like videos of ants in action.

Deby: I got some students actually setting up a GoPro, a couple of GoPro cameras, and we’re gonna be watching ants doing some things that nobody’s ever seen on a camera.

Alison: And Randy, how about for you, where should people get more information?

Randy: The best way to get information is on our website which is healthystpete.foundation.

Alison: Excellent. And they can learn more about the upcoming center and what’s…

Randy: All kinds of activities for 2019, so a very exciting year.

Deby: I have a question for you.

Randy: Oh yeah.

Deby: What was your inspiration to start this?

Randy: To move to the center, specifically? By listening to the community.

Deby: Wow.

Randy: Absolutely that’s the bottom line of the answer. So if we were to invest to our mission, which is two indifferences, who do I invest in? And when we looked across all sectors and try to figure out this county, and in the public sector, you know 24 cities, all that’s a challenge. The nonprofit sector is similar because of the disparate range of our county etc. What were missing is a place where people can come and work together; it’s both a function and a location.

Deby: Right. Excellent. Good for you.

Alison: Well, thank you both for joining us today, I really appreciate it. For the folks listening, if you want to learn more about all the things we talked about plus the other podcasts, stpeteinnovationdistrict.com. We’ve got a lot coming up in 2019 and it’ll be exciting, including probably, though Deby doesn’t know this, one of our upcoming quarterly tours of the district, I’d love to bring them through and see the ants in person.

Deby: Absolutely!

Alison: Wonderful!

Deby: I’d love to show you.

Alison: So, thank you all; have a great day.

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About the host

Alison Barlow is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. Her role is to harness expertise in health science, marine science, education, and art to form unique collaborations. These multi-sector, cross discipline collaborations strive to identify innovative solutions that will grow the economic and social vibrancy of St. Petersburg and address key global issues. Alison grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Boca Ciega High School, received a Bachelors in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University, and later a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Management of Global Information Systems from American University in Washington D.C. For 17 years, Alison worked as a business and technology consultant based in Washington DC, often for the Department of Defense. She focused on strategic planning, process improvement and technology collaboration. Following her relocation back to St. Petersburg, Alison became the manager and a lead facilitator for Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College. Alison joined the St. Petersburg Innovation District as its inaugural Executive Director in June of 2017. In addition to her work, Alison is involved with the Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Association, Friends of Strays Animal Shelter Board, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.


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