In the late nineteenth century the proliferation of telegraph lines, steamships and railway systems prompted for the first time the comment that ‘the world is shrinking.’ Today, with jet travel and cyber communication,
the world has become ‘a global village.’ Time too has been compressed, and with it our attention spans. We skip from one disaster to another, one moment of fame to another, one election to another, with nary a chance to collect our
wits in between. Immediate gratification is no longer fast enough.
The challenge is to step back, to paint a big picture with a broad brush, and in this particular case, to see where I personally fit in,
with perhaps some implications for the bees.
For more than a thousand years the ruling authority in Europe was the Catholic church. Its control, which was in part a combination of fear and superstition,
was challenged first in Italy in the C15th by the Renaissance, a period symbolized by Leonardo’s Mona Lisa which, for the first time since the Greeks and Romans, featured the dignity and beauty of the human condition rather than a biblical event
or a moral tale. The turmoil that followed, marked by a loss of faith in man, God and previous knowledge, was accompanied by a creative rebuilding on more reasoned foundations. Known as the Age of Reason, its main feature was the Scientific
Neither the Catholic church nor political systems based on the divine right of kings, abdicated gracefully. The confrontation came first with the English Revolution of 1688 and triumphed in the American and
French revolutions 100 years later. While royalty and the nobility had been preoccupied with an ornate, flamboyant life style, culminating in the Rococo style, a rapidly growing, frustrated bourgeoisie found their spokesmen in philosophers
such as Locke, Burke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and Paine who, presuming that rationality and truth were universal principles, developed an enlightened philosophy based on the rights of people and their relationship to government,
characterized by issues of equality, freedom and individual rights.
It’s easy to forget that what is common place today could be very dangerous when first introduced. The philosophers took great personal
risks; some were imprisoned or spent much of their life in exile. Jean-Francoise La Barre, a 21 year old nobleman, was publicly tortured, decapitated and burned because he owned a copy of one of Voltaire's books, which the executioner contemptuously
tossed onto the funeral pyre next to the victim’s head.
The eventual success of the Enlightenment is explained in part by the proliferation of pamphlets, books, newspapers, coffee houses and salons - eighteenth
century social media - even as it was confronted by a smoking lava-flow of condemnation from the Christian churches. The new optimism and confidence was expressed by a series of classical musicians (Haydn, Bach, and Mozart, for example)
who composed elegant, carefully constructed, logical symphonies that produced breathtaking effects of harmony and grace. Artists were inspired by humanism, mathematical reason, and the patterns of nature, represented in heroic drawings
of common people, the geometrical layout of Versailles gardens, and peaceful landscape painting.
The attack on the Bastille, July 1789, and the excesses of the Reign of Terror, 1793-94, led to the realization that there is
a side to life beyond logic and intellect. Reason did not explain longings or passions, dreams and nightmares. Rather one had to embrace the dignity and worth of the individual with all of his/her emotions, including love, hate, fear, sadness and
anger, together with the beauty of nature and a deep sense of the mystery of the universe beyond the mechanistic calculations of Newton and Galileo.
Artists such as Blake, Cole, Delacroix, Goya, Friedrich, and Constable
expressed the spiritual and intangible side of human nature. At the same time as rich peasant traditions and folklore become favored subjects for those such as the brothers Grimm, Thoreau symbolized the longing for the simpler, rural life. Dramatic demonstrations
of the clash between enlightenment and romanticism, between compositions that stress harmony and symmetry on one hand and those that explode with feeling on the other, can be seen in the classical paintings of Napoleon by David compared to either
Goya’s The Third of May 1808, or Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and heard in the works of Mozart, who died two years after the attack on the Bastille, compared to those of Beethoven, who lived through the
turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars and witnessed both the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France and the entrenchment of the Habsburg Monarchy in central Europe. The pianist, Alfred Brendel, suggested that if Beethoven is
considered a storm, then Mozart is a sunny day.
Prominent features of the era were first, support for the working classes who were the victims of industrialization, eventually finding a perspective in socialism,
and secondly, the Romantic Heroes, lonely men who lived on intuition and imagination as they tried to express these new liberal ideals. Thus the bold, brilliant, temperamental, egotistical Napoleon Bonaparte, or the passionate, creative, sensitive,
misunderstood, self conscious geniuses of Chopin, Beethoven, Blake, Hugo and Byron. Such heroes were prepared to risk all for their passion, and invariably led tragic, challenging lives.
The horrors and
stupidities of the Crimean War separated Romanticism from Realism, the latter with an emphasis on technology and industry which contrasted the significant wealth of a few with the degradation of slums and poverty experienced by the many. Thus the railway
barons and the Eiffel Tower were pitted against Charles Dickens and Karl Marx; on canvas Turner and the impressionists were freed from prior restraints by both the camera, which no longer made precise copies necessary, and the toothpaste tube, which
enabled artists to take their paints outside and into real light.
And with this came a growing concept of nationhood that inspired Britain in particular to grab territory in India, Africa, and the Middle East, and gave
ethnic groups in Europe the impetus to set aside their differences in favor of nationalist movements, not least in Italy and Germany. Thus the seeds for worldwide competition in the C20th had been planted, even if behind the jingoism there were underlying
feelings of stress and anxiety, characterized by Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
I confess to being a romantic, although without the need to risk all in the drive to achieve everything. I can write readily
how honey bees have attained the highest level of animal sociality recognized by sociobiologists, together with termites; I can chronicle how they achieve this eusociality without architects, engineers of blueprints; I can relate how a colony is a superorganism,
a living thing in and of itself, a self-regulating physiological and cognitive system with a memory and what Amia Srinavasan has called ‘a kind of collective intentionality.’ I can marvel that one honey bee cannot survive alone for
long, but put enough of them together in the right conditions and they will build a wax cathedral.
Yet there is a darker side too, a realistic picture that contains a warning for humanity. In the early 1920’s
the entomologist William Wheeler forewarned that social insects represent an evolutionary cul-de-sac which portends the eventual state of human society - “Very low intelligence combined with an intense and pugnacious solidarity of the whole.”
The harmony evident in bee and termite societies, Wheeler argued, was made possibly by ‘the solution to the male problem.’ Males, he argued, are the ‘antisocial sex … responsible for the instability
and mutual aggressiveness so conspicuous among the members of our own society.” His reasoning is reflective of the culture of the times in which he was writing - the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and rising fascist movements in Europe
- which I imagine was not that different to the confusion and instability many feel today.
Honey bees limit the number of males in a colony and they die after mating, but the conundrum was that, in
Wheeler’s eyes, it was the restless intellects of a small portion of the human male population that accounted for the great achievements in the ‘sciences, arts, technologies, philosophies, theologies and social utopias.’ He gave no credence
to the female workers in the hive, or in our society, nor did he consider that the queen was not so much a ruler as a slave to her ovipositer.
We can dismiss his sexist reasoning but not perhaps his general warning - the blind
alley that results from a combination of poor education and excessive tribalism or nationalism. As we face the greatest threat our world has known - global warming - it is going take a concentrated, informed, universal commitment to find again the balance
between reason and emotion, between technology and nature, between the individual and the collective whole, between the lessons of the past and the visions of the future, if we are to find a successful equilibrium .
my grandchildren will get to witness the Second Enlightenment, when the dreams of Burke, Paine and Voltaire, combined with the serenity and harmony of Mozart and the passion of Beethoven, are rediscovered after more than two centuries of turmoil and violence.
If so, then the honey bees will have been our constant guides and inspiration, and I have no doubt they will be delighted to share their world with us. That, of course, is the optimistic romantic speaking. Or as Robert Browning wrote, 'Ah, but
a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?'