MALLESWARAM:Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar of Bengaluru is set to receive Germany’s highest civilian honour, the Cross of the Order of Merit.
A leading expert in insect sociobiology, he is professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science. He is also president of the Indian National Science Academy, Delhi.
He spoke about his fascination with wasps, and why they matter to humans, in an exclusive interview with City Express.
Could you tell us about your work?
There are insects that organize themselves into societies — ants, termites, wasps, and so on. I study wasps. The organisation has value for different reasons. We are a social species as humans. There are advantages of this as well as disadvantages. These insects are 50 million years old while we are just one million years old.
As a biologist, I would say, we must learn from these different societies and be interested in learning how they live.
While observing insect societies, scientists have come up with insights. Societies do not prefer a top-down control with a single leader. What if he dies? Hence there is distributed intelligence. Nobody knows the final plan. Each individual follows simple local rules. The collective results are much bigger than originally planned.
What is it about your work that we as a society can relate to?
There are powerful algorithms in computer science based on ant societies. In telecommunications management, similar algorithms are used. An airlines uses ant-inspired algorithms to manage cargo movement.
You discovered the concept of ‘assured fitness returns’. What does it signify?
Why do insects form societies even when the costs are so high that only a small number of individuals get to reproduce? From a Darwinian point of view, the system is not stable. Yet, there are hidden advantages of being in a group. One such advantage is the serial divison of labour that gives a great advantage to individuals who live in a group.
Suppose they die, the offsprings are still cared for. It is like labourers who earn a wage daily, or once in three days, as opposed to those who earn wages only at the end of a month. We tested the theory mathematically and found that individuals have a two-and-a-half times greater advantage of staying in a group.
In humans too, let’s say skills such as tool-making could be passed on from generation to generation even if the individuals died. This has not been modelled yet.
What are your plans?
As an undergraduate in 1974, I fell in love with wasps. Much later, I realised they were scientifically important. I watched them as a hobby and later converted my hobby into my profession. I have traced the development of wasp societies for last 40 years. It is a short time, and I intend to learn more from them.
I need little money for my research. We recently performed an experiment mixing wasps from Mysuru and Bengaluru. We observed that after a few days, they forgot their differences and lost their individual identity. I need students. We enjoy working together and have fun, for benefits come sooner or later.
Tell us more about the award from Germany.
It is Germany’s highest civilian award. They are giving it to me for my scientific work. In their Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, they take 40-50 scholars from science, arts, cinema and let them live together for a year. My job has been to scout for these interesting people. I have started a similar experiment in IISc, called the Centre for Contemporary Sciences, where people come from all walks of life and discuss and debate together.
The institute has an undergraduate programme in science and these students have to learn humanities. I take some of these classes. Scientists are a part of society and live in it. Science does not happen in vacuum. Students must learn that society influences them and vice versa.