Monday, May 12, 2014

The wisdom of spiders

The NYT covers a new study of a rare spider species, one of the very few living in colonies (“Spiders That Thrive in a Social Web”). The scientists who did the study kept some young spiders in the same group of older spiders, and moved others repeatedly from one group to another. According to the NYT article, “the researchers showed that spiders exposed to the same group day after day developed stronger and more distinctive personalities than those that were shifted from one set of spiders to the next. Moreover, the spiders in a stable social setting grew ever less like one another over time.” It should be hardly surprising that the socially mobile spiders were more alike, with less pronounced personal quirks. After all, the break-up of stable, small-scale human communities and social mobility have long been associated with the emergence of a “protean” self – superficial, malleable, and supremely adaptable. But the spider study also contains another lesson which I hope some of my students can take to heart.

It turns out the spiders of this particular species specialize in different functions depending on their personal traits. Those who are more aggressive and fearless defend the colony and subdue the pray caught in the cooperatively spun and maintained web; those who are meeker are in charge of repairing the web and providing other logistical support. This is the lesson I cautiously offer to some of my brighter, but high-strung and emotionally vulnerable students – mostly young women who have grown up in less modernized East European and Central Asian societies, and thus seem a stronger version of the “orchid kids” David Dobbs described a few years ago. Perhaps they should try to find an existential and professional niche which suits their unique combination of strengths and vulnerabilities, as opposed to jumping headlong into the rat race? Alas, such specialization is easier in a spider colony with a culture of sharing and solidarity. In a society where the sky is the limit of individual achievement, there is pressure for everyone to compete and claw their way up and up the social ladder, and the top dogs bite off an ever larger share of the economic pie, following a more humble life path becomes a rather costly commitment.