Spider research may explain why Washington has become such a tangled web.
Kepper Amy Callaghan takes a close look at Jill the Red Kneed Spider during the annual stocktake at London Zoo, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. More than 17,500 animals including birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are counted in the annual stocktake at the zoo.
As our politicians in Washington stopped devouring each other for just a few days, I decided to reach out to an expert.
A man who studies extinction, and is wise in the ways of aggressive and docile species that eat meat.
Jonathan Pruitt, biologist, is an assistant professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Pittsburgh. He doesn’t study politicians, per se. He studies eight-legged creatures, some poisonous, with hair on their backs and mouths that open sideways: Spiders.
There are about 42,000 species of spiders. Of that number, only 25 species are social, meaning spiders that raise young in colonies and work together.
His radical experiment in these “social spiders” should be immediately funded, even in these days of the sequester.
“I basically give each spider a little personality test and then see how they do in different psychological challenges,” he said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his laboratory, which, naturally, contains spiders. “And these spiders make a society - they make a giant colony together where they operate a division of labor.”
In Pruitt’s experiment, he took a particular spider species, the cobweb weaver spiders, related to black widow spiders, and paired them off.
He put the dociles with the dociles and the aggressives with the aggressives. He also put together a group of dociles and aggressives.
Then he studied them for seven years. He watched them live and interact and breed. He observed how they grabbed helpless creatures and ate them, just like humans.
It turned out that the docile (let’s call them “good”) spiders quickly created large productive colonies with many little spider kids. And the aggressive spiders (the “bad” spiders) had fewer spider children and smaller colonies. The medium spiders (let’s call them “kinda like people”) with aggressive and nonaggressive traits, had medium-sized colonies.
What Pruitt found was that at the most productive colonies, other spiders showed up, to hang out, uninvited. He didn’t use the scientific term “hang out.” He used the term “infiltrate.”
“They’re social parasites,” he explained of the infiltrators, who were attracted to the spider colony by pheromones. They stole food, and attacked and fed on the colonists.
The passive or “good” spiders were so gentle that their colonies were overrun and destroyed by infiltrators. And the aggressive or “bad” spiders never got much going, but at least they survived.
Meanwhile, the “kinda like people” spider colony - with aggressive and nonaggressive traits - was able to survive extinction.
So it takes all kinds?
“It’s kind of a feel-good method at the end. It sounds like a children’s book, but your intuition is probably right. It takes all kinds,” Dr. Pruitt said. “If we have too many aggressives, then the group has too much infighting and frequently they miss out on important resources.
“If you have too many dociles, yeah, everybody gets along, everything is going along amicably until you have a serious challenge in front of you, Some foreign species or some foreign entity.”
Eureka, I thought, and told an editor, who made a face and asked, in the manner of most Americans:
“Is this analogous to my career?”
It very well may be analogous, if you pay taxes.
What’s truly amazing is that Pruitt now believes his model allows for the study of “the rise and fall of entire lineage of organisms based on who started it. And that’s seven years downstream.”
Who wouldn’t be interested in extinction? Doctors want certain infectious diseases to disappear. The agriculture industry hopes the same for pests. Others are interested in the hopes of saving certain species from extinction.
Still others hope to save the republic, although they’re outnumbered by docile and aggressive spiders who don’t know what that word “republic” really means.
“Now we can manipulate the factors that can drive extinction and because we can see it happening in the field over and over, we can basically get at this in a way that only math could do before. Now we can do it with a real animal.”
Like those two-legged creatures who once lived free but have taken to printing cash to pay for their gorging and now want to extend the debt ceiling?
Pruitt realized this was getting political. He played along in a nonpartisan, purely scientific way.
“You can absolutely analyze. ... I’m not trying to say that passive individuals are meant to die. But when they’re at odds, when they’re in competition with another population, another tribe or a group of people who have at least a very small group of aggressive individuals, it’s good.”
He mentioned a female politician who may seek the presidency, but asked me not to use her name: “She’s supermanipulative and kind of aggressive, but actually I want her on my side. I would rather her work for my country (colony) than somebody else’s.”
And what of another faction - a minority considered too aggressive by political scientists - that issues warnings that the colony won’t survive if the docile spiders keep printing cash and spending and spending?
“They are very, very aggressive. They do not back down,” Pruitt said. “Now we’re involved in the infighting issue, which happens in the spider societies, too, when you have too many aggressive individuals and they won’t back down. They actually lose resources.”
When a spider society is about to become extinct, they just keep doing what they’re doing. The dociles don’t become aggressives, and the aggressives don’t become dociles. They’re spiders, and when their colonies die off, they’re just simply gone.
But the two-legged meat eaters?
Unlike spiders, when they die off, they at least have the decency to leave campaign slogans behind.
Like the ones that promised “fiscal responsibility” so the colony would survive.
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