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Before I answer that, a little science.
Scientists study all kinds of things. One thing they study is ants, because ants teach a lot about communities.
In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ecologists Shigeto Dobata and Kazuki Tsuji studied the effects of “cheaters” in a colony of Pristomyrmex Punctatus ants.
P. Punctati segment their society into two groups by age. Younger ants tend to hang around the house reproducing asexually. (And why wouldn’t they?) As they age, the ants reproduce less and take on other duties like foraging for food and repairing the home. In other words, they mature and become more responsible for themselves and for their communities.
Both behaviors are cooperative. Both help the colony at the expense of some personal sacrifice, though I can’t figure out what the kids give up by sit around reproducing day and night.
So what happens when scientists introduce a “cheater” ant or two?
Cheaters are like cooperators in all ways but one: cheaters don’t stop reproducing to go out and forage. In short, they don’t grow up.
But they do consume. And defecate. Right there in the house. And because their reproduction is asexual, the damn kids are just as horny and lazy as the parent. Since cheaters reproduce more than cooperators do, pretty soon most of the colony is cheater ants. They eat, they sleep, they poop, and they . . . reproduce.
Of course, this can go on only so long. As less food comes in and less waste goes out, the colony becomes filthy, poor, and overcrowded. The cooperators move out or die, leaving the cheaters to decay among their own filth.
Which brings us to the Julias of the world.
Julia was (semi) fictitious character sprung onto a waiting world by the Obama-Biden campaign. Julia is a cheater. From age of three, Julia sponges off the colony. From head start through social security, Julia eats the food others foraged and occupies the home others built and maintain.
Despite free birth control and copious, publicly supported family planning instruction, Julia, of course, reproduces. The Julia in Obama’s video never marries–or even dates–a man, so I assume she reproduces asexually, like her P. Punctatus ancestors. Which would explain the failure of birth control. Julia’s offspring, of course, imitate their parent. (Here’s a video about Julia from The Five.)
Think this cheater behavior is unique to ants? Think again.
Researchers have recently evaluated these questions in systems involving viruses and cells (where cells may secrete protective substances, or self-destruct to form a spore-dispersing stalk) but not in multicellular organisms before. Yet the results are so similar, write Dobata and Tsuji, that they believe universal principles are at play.
What is one of those “universal principles?” Cheaters eventually eat out the substance of their cooperative cousins and destroy their society.
This phenomenon seems to be near a tipping point among us humans in the US of A. The punctatus is among us.
If only Mitt Romney had seen the ant study before his infamous “forty-seven percent” statement during the 2012 campaign. He could have substituted “homo punctati” for “forty-seven percent,” and no one would be the wiser. A few ambitious reporters (if there are any) might have googled “homo punctati” and found nothing, since I just made it up by combining the word for man (homo) with the description of a type of ant (punctatus). But you get the point.
People are, of course,different from viruses and ants. We have intellects and imaginations that allow us to project the effects of cheaters on our human colonies. And we have the ability and the right to ostracize cheaters–to tear them off the teat, so to speak.
The question is, will we?