Part of the wall of the colony was a circular magnifying glass. Through it Marcus did not meet, but saw, the unseeing huge eye of a worker ant in a cavern lined with spun cocoons. The eye was like a huge apple seed. The ant itself was three glittering black, carapaced, pointed and rounded segments and six finely jointed limbs.
...[the queen was] a mountainous distended belly with feeble head and feet poking from it, climbed over, as a grounded air balloon or beached ship might be, by diligent tiny attendant daughters.
'Horrible,' he said.'Horrible.'
'No, why? Look at these - these are "repletes", these are ants who just hang up as honeypots for all the other ants all their lives... Isn't it interesting?' said Jacqueline.
'Yes. But I don't like it. Them.'
'That's because you see them as human. If you don't, they are simply amazing.'
Marcus considered the swollen egg layer and the incessant motion in the dark tunnels.
'I don't see how you can't - see them in relation to us.'
'You must try.'
(AS Byatt, Still Life)
So, that's the key then, stop seeing them as anything like us.
I envy naturalists, biologists, entomologists, and I know that, besides not having the head for it and being too vague and sloppy and lazy to be any kind of scientist anyway, I couldn't be one. Vague arty types like me think we are in pursuit of beauty, but it seems to me that they follow the dictum 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' with a dedication and ruthlessness that does it nothing but honour. You could say the same for any science, but here we are talking about life, living things, animals, and that's where the ruthlessness comes in. They pull things apart, slice them up, look at their bits, put them back together, to see how they work, always wondering and committed to the beauty of it all.
Flabby, soppy people like me, you see, we keep letting our affect get in the way, our human-based notions of morality and aesthetics, and eventually our wretched, rigourless, sentimental anthropomorphism.
Real life-scientists don't do that. Do they?
A passion for something doesn't necessarily mean you need to treat it with kindness ( the root of which means 'as if it were your own kind' ); it means you want to know it inside out, by whatever means. We recently watched a TV programme about Humboldt squid, and how their populations are exploding on the Pacific coast of the Americas - they make my hornets look like a walk in the park as far as alien menace is concerned. They fished one of these cephalopods up out of the sea from a boat, and plonked it in a tank. The very young-looking marine biologist, who was going to be responsible for the next step in the experiment, looked as excited and flushed and joyful as a little girl getting her first puppy, as the creature, looking like a monstrous, faceless, many-limbed infant being wrestled into its bath, furiously (though even that is projection) spitting out a jet of seawater. then, in order to learn more of the animal's reproduction, growth rate etc, they extracted the necessaries and created the embryos in a lab. 'Let's make squid babies!' said the young biologist, rubbing her hands with glee. I have to say I adored this woman. Later we saw the whole troupe of scientists enjoying a meal of fried squid with especial relish, not only because if the squids continue as they are they will be the only form of fish or seafood available in most of the eastern Pacific, but because it gave them great and vengeful pleasure to be eating something which had been wreaking so much havoc and trying to kill them.
Then there are my German hornet enthusiasts, yet they make the case for their protegés that they are 'gentle giants', they make an affective and sympathetic saga of their life cycle. Masata Ono, the chief authority on the Asian giant hornet, vespa mandarinia, (crabro's very big oriental cousin) who has suffered its sting and described it as being like a hot nail driven through his leg, on the one hand argues for a dispassionate rejection of judgemental anthropomorphism: '[They] seem brutal to us, but they're just doing what they have to do to survive', but then resorts to pleading their cause in much more emotive terms 'they're excellent mothers and fierce protectors.'
So if the biologists can't shed their affect, their emotional involvement, for good or ill, with the objects, or subjects, of their studies, how easy is it for us to do so?
Perhaps it's something to do with faces...