April 24, 2014

The Sociology of “Zombie Ants”

Shawn photo2By Shawn Van Valkenburgh

Sociology PhD student, UC Santa Barbara

When Oscar Wilde wrote that “Life imitates Art,” he was playfully subverting  conventional wisdom about nature that dates back to at least the time of Aristotle, and continues to shape our unstated assumptions about the world.  We usually think about art as a human meditation about a “real world” that is separate from people.

This has its corollary in our epistemology, or the way that we come up with knowledge about the world. As members of a scientific culture, we tend to think of epistemology as a process of going out into that real world and discovering objective facts about nature. In this narrative, only bad scientists pollute their science with personal biases and politics. This is a story that says if we are diligent enough, we can discover what the world looks like when human subjectivity and error are filtered out of our perception, that we can find a “truth” which transcends the unique characteristics of our particular culture.

Wilde's provocative point was that things that may seem “natural” (that is, the outcome of non-human, non-social forces) can actually be products of social behavior. The upshot is that now what counts as knowledge is up for debate. Through an artistic process of exaggeration and selection that Wilde calls “an intensified mode of over-emphasis,” we choose to see some things and ignore other things. Taken together, this process of emphasis comes to determine how we see “nature.”

According to this kind of “anti-mimesis,” it is impossible to grasp nature in a way that is free from any kind of human subjectivity. Wilde asks us:

What is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

As his primary example, Wilde notes that fog might not be an object of scientific study had it not been made to seem beautiful by artwork:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Philosopher of science Sandra Harding echoes this sentiment when she points out that scientists make culturally specific decisions about what counts as a legitimate research project, that this is one of many ways that biases and politics can influence “good science:”

Culturewide (or nearly culturewide) beliefs function as evidence at every stage in scientific inquiry: in the selection of problems, the formation of hypotheses, the design of research…the collection of data, the interpretation and sorting of data, decisions about when to stop research, the way results of research are reported, and so on (1992:69).

The questions we ask about nature help shape our conception of it, and the aspects of nature we decide to focus on influence our notion of “truth.”

Sociological theorist Eviatar Zerubavel makes a similar point when he argues that there are underlying social forces that construct our perceptions of reality:

The way we cut up the world clearly affects the way we organize our everyday life. The way we divide our surroundings, for example, determines what we notice and what we ignore, what we eat and what we avoid eating...These lines play a critical role in the construction of social reality.

Thus, while Oscar Wilde never called himself a sociologist, he was theorizing along sociological lines. Part of what it means to use the “sociological imagination” is to critically examine some of the things that we think are natural facts of life, and tease out the social influences. As Toni Morrison might say, we look for the “things behind the things.” What may seem like a naturally occurring phenomenon may actually be the product of collective human behavior.

A more recent example will illustrate and support this idea. The BBC's “Planet Earth” series is one of the most successful nature documentaries ever, earning millions from DVD sales, spawning several spinoffs, and launching its narrator Sir David Attenborough into international fame.

Compared to more popular kinds of film, we usually think of the nature documentary as a relatively bland and objective take on the world around us. To borrow Wilde's terms, “wherever [artists] have returned to Life and Nature, our work has always become vulgar, common and uninteresting”.  Indeed, it would seem that “Planet Earth” owes some of its popularity to its ability to connect to human and social themes that are seemingly unrelated to the biological and ecological sciences. That is, part of the reason why “Planet Earth” caught on with such as wide audience is that dipped its toes into other genres, and tied some of its stories to more “interesting” media.


For example, its Cordyceps: Attack of the Killer Fungi segment parallels the zombie story that made its way into the mainstream media via George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. In this clip, the cordyceps fungus infects the brain of an ant, and then controls its behavior in a way that spreads cordyceps spores to infect other ants. Thus, the cordyceps fungus is something like a zombie that bites a human, who then turns into another contagious zombie. Attenborough himself notes that cordyceps is “Like something out of science fiction.” In this light, we should not be too surprised to find that the scientific media began referring to these infected bugs as “zombie ants.” Would we have made cordyceps the object of scientific study if zombies weren't so popular in our culture? Probably not, at least not in the same way, and not by so many people.

If “Life imitates Art,” then sometimes Art returns the compliment. In an interesting turn of events, this Planet Earth segment inspired a popular piece of zombie-related fictional media. “The Last of Us” is a successful video game about a zombie outbreak caused by a kind of cordyceps infection. Its creators, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, have explicitly cited this BBC segment as a jumping-off point.  After watching the fungus grow out of an ant's body, they “instantly thought 'humans". According to USA Today, “The two discussed how 'it would be a cool realistic back setting to a zombie movie where this thing jumped species...not knowing there was going to be another (game) project.'" (The plot thickens even further, as The Last of Us is set to undergo a film adaptation with director Sam Raimi at the helm.)

It would seem that in this case, art deliberately imitates life. And yet, the “nature” that this game grows from may actually be a kind of art in and of itself. That is, the “realistic back setting” of Last of Us may itself be a product of social forces. As sociologists, when we peek behind the curtain of our surface level reality—the “nature” that we take for granted—we might find that fact and fiction are not as separable as we once thought.


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