Follow Us:
Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Down in jungleland: The genes have it

What naturally programmed animal behaviour can teach us about the horrors of artificial tinkering with human genes.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published: October 29, 2017 1:17:17 am
If they lose the main pheromone trail of their group, ferocious but blind driver ants in South and Central America begin to follow one another’s trail in an endless loop, until they all die. (Photo: Thinkstock Images) 

It’s one thing to read about some of nature’s more bizarre manifestations in the papers, or to see them happening in brilliantly produced television programmes (which, of course, the sceptical part of you will maintain can always be faked), but quite another when you actually observe it happening in your own backyard or bathroom! Some days ago, at around 7 am, I found this large black ant — of the variety that emerges in hordes during the rains —perched on the rim of the small glass plate that serves as a soap dish. It “sniffed” around with the help of its antennae and then began trundling around the rim. I thought nothing of it and let it be, convinced it would eventually find its way back home, wherever that was.

Subsequent visits to the bathroom revealed that the ant was still there, determinedly circumambulating the plate’s rim in an anti-clockwise direction. It just went round and round and round, tirelessly and mindlessly. By midday, its enthusiasm had somewhat flagged, yet it continued with a sort of grim madness that made me a little uneasy. By two in the afternoon, it was tottering around, looking unsure of itself, clearly exhausted but still continuing on the trail. I could have, of course, in the interests of science, just let it go round and round until it dropped dead, but decided to put it out of its misery. With the help of a stick I gently lifted it off the rim and put it down next to the hand-basin. It perked up immediately, raised its head and trundled off briskly trying to climb up the tiled wall. It was almost as if it had come out of a state of hypnosis. It would have been interesting to calculate how much distance the little insect had covered in those seven hours of virtually non-stop walking.

I knew that ants followed one another with the help of the pheromone trail they lay down as they go around looking for food. I had also read about the phenomenon called ant milling. If they lose the main pheromone trail of their group, ferocious but blind driver ants in South and Central America begin to literally blindly follow one another’s trail in an endless circle, until they all die. So it was possible that my solitary black ant — which incidentally did not seem to be blind — first trundled around the plate’s rim and then began blindly following its own pheromone trail in an endless loop, thinking it was on its way home. There had been a single-minded determination about the way it went round and round that was a bit scary; as if it knew without a shadow of doubt that what it was doing was the right thing. It had obviously been genetically programmed to behave so, but this is exactly the sort of thing that makes genetic engineering such a frightening prospect.

We all may want designer babies with the best of features, clean habits, brilliant minds; babies who do not keep us awake at night or fuss over their food, or throw tantrums in public, and so on. But with a little genetic tweaking, we can also have horrific mindless human drones that do our bidding, without question or conscience. With the kind of wacko leadership the world currently has, that’s a distinct possibility.

In fact, we’re already proving to be hugely vulnerable to mind manipulation (brainwashing people to become suicide bombers, for example) and this is without actually tinkering with our genes. The power of the effects of genetic programming cannot be underestimated. Cats, big and small, and some remarkable dogs for instance, have a strong homing instinct. They will undertake incredible journeys to return home, which is why relocating wild animals like leopards is not a good idea: they simply return to the places they were first captured from, stressed beyond belief, and, en route, usually get into even more trouble than they already were in. God knows what went on in the head of that young tigress from Bor (she was reported to be just two years old, and if so, must have barely left her mother’s side) that went on an over 500 km perambulation through hostile country before being electrocuted.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take genetic programming or brainwashing to make us behave like robotic morons: it just takes a blank mind. In one of his books, Gerald Durrell mentions a case where a giraffe in a zoo was being given warm water to drink every day. When it was his turn to look after the animal, he asked the ex-keeper of the animal why this was so. The fellow said that he was instructed to do so and was just obeying orders. Further investigation revealed that the custom had started when, a long time ago, the giraffe had developed a sore throat and its then keeper thought that warm water would soothe it. This “instruction” was never rescinded when the giraffe got well and the practice continued blindly — as do so many (often barbaric) customs today.

In the meanwhile, I’m looking out for an ant volunteer to place on the rim of that soap dish plate, to see what happens again — will it disdainfully hop off, or will it begin going round and round again, following its own scent forever?

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

For all the latest Lifestyle News, download Indian Express App