No scriptwriters left behind

This week I saw the new Jim Carrey comedy, mildly funny. But while waiting to see it I saw a new coke advertisement with polar bears and penguins hanging out together, drinking coca-cola. Wait a second, Polar bears live on the North pole, and punguins on the South.

Chris Mooney lamented about what this means about, and does to the public understanding of science, in this case biogeography. Biogeography is the study of the patterns of species distributions, meaning what species lives where and when, and the processes that result in those distributions. Many people tend to imagine polar bears, eskimos, and penguins living in the same place, someplace cold.

I commented there, but I would also like to expound a bit more here. The commercial was directed at kids, who may not know that polar bears and penguins never meet except possibly at a zoo, through several plates of glass. Then they’re going to end up in an argument with a young nerd that knows better. Another systematic way that nerds are ostracized in their youth.

The comments on Mooney’s blog remind me of two movies that both came out in 1998, A Bug’s Life, and Antz. (Hollywood tends to do movie themes in pairs: Armageddon and Deep Impact, Volcano and Dante’s Peak, etc) Both were made for kids, and focused on the calamities that might befall members of a colony of ants. Although A Bug’s Life centered around grasshoppers controlling a colony of ants as a food source, and Antz had a story based upon a military coup from an ambitious soldier ant, they both had an identical theme – lowly male worker ant falls in love with young queen and saves the day by uniting the colony in resistance.

One problem, scriptwriters: Worker ants are female! All of them. The role of males within the insect Order Hymenoptera, which includes the wasps, ants, and bees, is for the most part a reproductive role. The queen(s), workers, soldiers, and young queens are female, so romance between a worker ant and a young queen seems rather unlikely to me, to say the least. What we had with both of these movies was an imposition of human society on ant colonies. The only accurate part about it was that they recognized that the queens were female.

In Antz, the soldiers, following from our culture, were predictably male. The workers were a mix of male and female, and then there were the queens. If a soldier ant decided to usurp the queen, it would probably doom the colony because the queen is needed to produce the eggs. Actually, this is where both movies get the role of the queen totally wrong, playing on and continuing cultural mythology. The “queen” ant, bee, or wasp does not rule the colony in the sense that human queens such as Elizabeth I ruled, or my cat Simba thinks she rules the household.

The queen is specialized for egg laying. It is true that in honeybee colonies the queen controls (suppresses) the development of ovaries in the sterile worker bees. But decisions are made on the colony-level by the collective communications of the workers, not a top-down monarchy that we associate with the term queen. Actually, when the first queen was discovered, it was called a “king.” This was because they were imposing their culture on the social insects, as we still do today.

I suppose I could also complain about the whole grasshoppers-controlling-the-ants thing in A Bug’s Life, but it seems that it was intended to teach a lesson about unification, strength in numbers, which is a highly successful strategy for ants and humans alike. (which was also echoed in Antz.) The war against the termites in Antz was more like something that real ants might encounter, even the flamethrower-like chemical warfare they used on the ants, although termite soldiers with large mandibles are more common.

I’ve been fascinated with social insects for a long time, and when I saw the ads for Antz I was excited, but disappointed when I finally went to see the film. They had the chance to explore a totally new concept, a film starring characters that operate by a totally different social system than humans. Would our culture accept a movie where the romantic story ends with the death of the male, and the only characters that work, defend, or lay eggs are female?

Well they could solve a few of those problems with termites – their workers are both male and female, and the males do not die after mating. And they are blind, which might be an interesting twist to the story. But if you want a more human society-resembling social insect, go with termites, from the order Isoptera.

What would a movie that explores the inner workings of social insects and keeps itself as scientifically accurate as possible be like? What kind of a story could develop? Perhaps there could be a story about bees that has a sort of Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of Nimh flavor to it.

A honeybee colony absconds from cruddy conditions in an ill-maintained beekeeper’s hive to try to make it on their own. There could be a conflict over whether or not to leave the hive, and there could be a dramatic dance sequence that culminates in the split. (Honeybees use their dance-based communication behavior not only for communicating food locations, but also to decide where to move the colony.) More complications ensue, solutions present themselves, and then a happy ending and a moral lesson to go with it.

The point is, we can do better than this. The last thing we need is another typical human story with insect-sized characters. But I learned the lesson of both films, that a united front triumphs. We need to collectively demand better. Or we need to come up with insightful, scientifically enlightened films because the one’s with the studios can’t seem to do it right on their own.
Story ideas, anyone?

P.S. I wonder if caffeine is toxic to polar bears and/or penguins…

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

One thought on “No scriptwriters left behind”

  1. Maybe not toxic, but they would probably go into hyperglycemic shock. I don’t think they could take that much sugar.

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