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An article in the November 1993 issue of Scientific American, "A Lab of Her Own," described Deborah Gordon, an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at Stanford, as an entomologist: "Gordon, who does research on ants, is one of the few women studying social insects. She is currently observing how information is passed from generation to generation in harvester ant colonies in Arizona." Reminded of the recent publication of the memoirs of ant specialist and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, this brief description intrigued us enough to call Dr. Gordon and ask her about her work. How did she come to study ants? Was she, like Wilson, fascinated with insects from childhood? What is it like to be "one of the few women studying social insects"? Is the field changing as more women enter it?
Actually, I'm not an entomologist. An entomologist would be somebody who looks at the diversity of insect species, who keeps track of how species change over evolutionary time. I think of myself as a behavioral ecologist. I study animal behavior, and I use ants to do that, but if I were going to pick a different system, I wouldn't necessarily pick an insect. I want to learn about behavior, and I chose ants because I was interested in the kind of system that an ant colony is an example of: there are lots of interacting parts, each of which doesn't understand how the whole system works, yet at the level of the colony, there is very complicated and fine-tuned behavior.
Unlike ants, humans always have an idea about what they're doing. Whether it's accurate or not, we have to be able to explain what is happening to ourselves all the time. Ants don't do that. Ants are fairly stupid and they respond to very local information. What's interesting about an ant colony is the way that a system with many interacting parts can work. Embryos are similar in that way. You have lots of cells and none of them knows about the whole. Yet you end up with liver, brains and bones -- the cells turn into the right thing kit the right time. A brain is another analogy: a brain can think, but none of the neurons can think. Neurons can only …