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The Beatrix Potter Syndrome
When trying to understand something new, we automatically look for parallels in our previous experience: we seek examples from the familiar in order to better understand the unfamiliar. Often, this can be helpful, as when we learn a new language and we draw on our knowledge of another language with a common root.
Unfortunately, this strategy can also take us down a path that leads not to greater understanding, but to the confusion of fact with conditioned thought and to a form of distorted vision.
This can readily be observed in the interpretation of animal behaviour by reference to human behaviour, which is one form of what we call anthropomorphism. Myths and fables and children’s tales are so suffused with the granting of human values and character traits to animals that it is hard to think of a creature that has not, in our imaginations, been stereotyped and imprinted with characteristics ascribed to it by someone with a particular point to make, or axe to grind. Thus the fox is ‘wily and cunning’; the dog is ‘faithful and obedient’; the elephant is a ‘gentle giant’ and the snake is ‘sneaky and deceitful’. Aesop probably started the trend, but I prefer to call it the ‘Beatrix Potter Syndrome’, in recognition of her influence on the developing minds of 20th-century children, of whom I was one.
Beatrix Potter was an accomplished illustrator and observer of nature, who, had she been born a century later, may well have had a distinguished career in science. Sadly, she is now only remembered for her children’s books depicting animals in human clothing who walk on their hind legs. From her stories, a direct line can be drawn to the emotionally charged portrayals of animals in many Disney films, while the brutal reality of the lives of wild animals is hidden beneath a veil of sugary sentimentality.
Potter’s assignation of human attributes and behaviour to animals is only one form of anthropomorphism. There are at least two other ways in which we routinely corrupt our understanding of the non-human world by our choice of language: the use of words to name or describe an animal and the description of animal behaviour in human terms.
We can draw examples from the world of bees to illustrate both of these phenomena.
When we label the egg-laying mother of the colony as ‘queen’ bee, we impose on her by implication all the meaning with which that English word is loaded. Thus we may expect to find her as a monarch in charge of the colony, issuing orders and, perhaps, punishments for infringements of ‘colony law’. The term ‘queen bee’ has passed back into the English language as a description of a woman with a controlling and manipulate nature, who likes to have people around her to serve her needs and give her attention. This reinforces the popular but inappropriate picture of a real ‘queen’ bee, which should really be more accurately thought of as the egg-laying servant of the colony and certainly not its ruler. While the queen bee does indeed have a retinue of attendants to feed and groom her, it is they who lead her around and prepare places for her to lay. When she begins to show any signs of a decline in her ability to provide eggs, she will be superseded, ignored and left to starve.
Likewise the male bee, or drone, which has inherited the popular meaning of its name as a parasitic loafer, or one who lives off the labours of others. While the male bees do no obvious and visible work compared to their sometimes hyper-active sisters, we know remarkably little about their day-to-day activities due to the comparatively small amount of research that has been conducted on them. I suggest it is highly improbable that a colony would deliberately encumber itself with a ‘useless’ 10-15% of its population at a time when gathering food is its primary concern. Simply because we have so far failed to study them with due care does not entitle us to label them as ‘surplus to requirements’, which is how they are regarded by most conventional beekeepers. In fact, research by Juergen Tautz at Wurtzburg University has shown that drones may indeed have hitherto unsuspected duties within the hive and may well have functions in the outside world that have so far eluded detection. As long ago as 1852, Moses Quinby (Mysteries of Beekeeping Explained) suggested that drones would likely have functions beyond mating with a queen, perhaps including helping to keep the brood warm. R.O.B.Manley noted that his best honey-producing hives generally had “a large number of drones” (Honey Farming, 1947).
When we come to bee behaviour, so much of it is alien to us that we struggle to make sense of it, so it is not surprising that we resort to attempts to explain aspects of their world in human terms. We talk freely of bees foraging for food, scouting for a nest site, communicating by means of the ‘waggle dance’, defending their home, mating and carrying out their dead because these are all activities that we can easily relate to and make practical sense in terms of day-to-day survival in a colony.
What is perhaps more surprising – and infinitely less helpful – is when people concoct mystical ‘explanations’ derived entirely from their imaginations and pass them on as if they had some scientific validity or foundation in fact.
Myths and legends, populated by gods and heroes, are poetic allegories through which we have conveyed information – both oral and written – from generation to generation and thus gained some understanding of our cultural history. Many myths are anthropomorphic in their personification of natural phenomena, but as long as we understand their origins and true nature, we can learn from them without confusing their content with objective reality.
However, as our scientific understanding of the natural world grew rapidly throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a parallel growth of popular interest in such things as clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy, reincarnation, ghosts, out-of-body experiences and suchlike para-psychological phenomena that appear not to be subject to the known laws of physics, chemistry or biology. Despite the lack of verifiable evidence for such phenomena, they appear to occupy a nether region that stubbornly persists in popular culture.
In the context of this article, the consideration of whether or not such phenomena really exist is less relevant than the fact that they have, since Victorian times at least, been routinely presented as if they were genuine by people with a considerably greater talent for showmanship than for scientific rigour. Demonstrations of ‘manifestations from the spirit world’ were fashionable in late nineteenth century society, while Ouija boards and ‘table-tipping’ have floated in and out of fashion almost to the present day, despite the efforts of rationalists such as James Randi and Derren Brown to expose the trickery behind them. Variations on the ‘clairvoyance’ theme have been around at least since the days of the Delphic Oracle – probably the first example of a tourist industry built around a mystical cult – and show no signs of losing popularity, despite various myth-busting public exposures of fraud and trickery.
Rudolf Steiner, in his lectures on bees, delivered in November and December of 1923 at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, sought to interpret the world of bees by means of ‘Anthroposophy’, a Christianized, version of the mystical 19th century eastern-derived ‘religious philosophy’ of Theosophy, whose best-known proponent, Helena Blavatsky, was also a performing clairvoyant. Both Steiner and Blavatsky claimed to derive their occult knowledge from outside the material world, by a process that would nowadays be called ‘channeling’.
Steiner believed that mankind had existed on Earth – although not necessarily in material form – since its creation, and that bees (as well as other animals) were created for our benefit. This chronological reversal of the truth as revealed by fossil evidence – bees having certainly been around for more than 100 million years before Homo sapiens – sets the scene for further dubious assertions, such as when he talks of embryonic queens “giving off light” that somehow causes a colony to swarm from “fear that ‘it no longer possesses the bee poison”.
Anyone unfamiliar with Steiner’s idiosyncratic cosmology and his other writings about the supposed history of the Earth may be surprised by passages such as:
“Our earth was once in a condition of which one could say that it was surrounded by clouds that had plant-life within them; from the periphery, other clouds approached and fertilised them; these clouds had an animal nature. From cosmic spaces came the animal nature; from the earth the essence of plant-being rose upwards.” (Lecture VIII)
Back in the world of bees, Steiner makes much of the 21-day gestation period of a worker bee as being equivalent to “a single rotation of the sun on its axis” (Lecture II), apparently unaware that the equatorial regions of the sun perform a single rotation in 25.6 days, while polar regions rotate once in about 36 days (NASA).
He goes on to say that ‘the drone is thus an earthly being’ (because its completion takes longer than the sun’s rotation – which in fact, as we now know, it does not).
He further elaborates on this thesis:
“The drones are the males; they can fertilize; this power of fertilization comes from the earth; the drones acquire it in the few days during which they continue their growth within the earth-evolution and before they reach maturity. So we can now say: in the bees it is clearly to be seen that fertilization (male fecundation) comes from the earthly forces, and the female capacity to develop the egg comes from the forces of the Sun. So you see, you can easily imagine how significant is the length of time during which a creature develops. This is very important for, naturally, something happens within a definite time which could not occur in either a shorter or a longer time, for then quite other things would happen.”
As happens numerous times in the Lectures, Steiner makes a statement that is demonstrably erroneous, and then goes on to elaborate a sequence of specious arguments from it, which, being derived from false premises, must inevitably lead to false conclusions.
It would be tedious to cite every instance where Steiner is obfuscatory, unnecessarily mystical or just plain wrong. Suffice to say that, while not being totally devoid of interest, his Lectures are about as useful a source of insights into bees as a medieval book of medicinal herbs would be for conducting modern surgery. Indeed, Steiner even betrays his lack of basic understanding of the functions of the human body (Lecture VII) in saying that:
“…it is represented as though the heart were a kind of pump, and that this pumping of the heart sends the blood all over the body. This is nonsense, because it is in reality the blood which is brought into motion by the ego-organization, and moves throughout the body.”
However, Steiner does make some non-mystical statements that must be considered, as they at least fall into alignment with observable reality. He warns against pushing bees for over-production, drawing a parallel with the dairy industry (Lecture V); he emphasizes that “… the bee-colony is a totality. It must be seen as a totality.” (Lecture V); The one much-vaunted but often mis-quoted, ‘prediction’ made by Steiner, usually misrepresented as a ‘prophesy’ of the general demise of bees, amounts to a rather mild criticism of the then relatively new practice of artificial insemination: “…we must see how things will be in fifty to eighty years time…”.
Right at the end of the final Lecture, we find clear evidence that Steiner’s view of nature is actually highly anthropocentric:
‘Thus we can say: When we observe things in the right way, we see how the processes of Nature are actually images and symbols of what happens in human life. These men of olden times watched the birds on the juniper trees with the same love with which we look at the little cakes and gifts on the Christmas tree. “…I have therefore spoken of the juniper tree which can truly be regarded as a kind of Christmas tree, and which is the same for the birds as the blossoms for the bees, the wood for the ants, and for the wood-bees and insects in general.”
And so Steiner’s personal mysticism, as well as his sentimentality, turns out to have a large component of anthropomorphism lurking within it.
Having reached this point in our analysis, we have to consider what is left to us: what would be a legitimate methodology for the study of bees, that would be free from the elephant traps of anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, sentimentality and mysticism, yet can encompass the sense experienced by many who come into contact with bees that there is ‘something else’ present, beyond the purely material?
A rationalist would say, ‘observe without interpretation: see what is there and describe it as accurately as possible, but without overlaying it with meaning. Be true to observable reality’.
And yet, many people report some kind of transcendental experience in the presence of bees en masse, so are their reports to be written off as mere whimsy?
Speaking from my own experience, I can say that while working with bees and maintaining a calm, unhurried demeanour, I have had moments of inner peace akin to that I have also experienced while meditating or engaging in certain martial arts practices that aim to ‘still the mind’. Having one’s unprotected hands in a hive containing 50,000 fully-armed bees has a way of focusing the mind very much in the moment, while any deviation from the ‘now’ is likely to be punished more rapidly and more severely than by a Zen master’s staff.
Being present ‘in the moment’ is a rarer – and thus more precious – experience for the 21st-century Twitter-dweller than for our ancestors. For the opportunity to experience that sense of timelessness in the company of a wild creature so many millennia our senior is a privilege that beekeepers should celebrate and cherish.
Mysticism has had its day. We are grown-ups now: we have seen the atom bomb and the double helix and we need to come to terms with objective reality in all its wonderful forms without ascribing all phenomena just beyond our understanding to the work of gods, aliens, faeries or gnomes. We can appreciate nature without projecting our aspirations or values onto it. We can observe without always needing to know the ‘hidden meaning’ of what we see hear, smell and taste. We can be elevated by what is around us and enjoy all the sensations available in this remarkable, natural world. We can even compose poems and songs, myths and fables to entertain us and our children, but we no longer need to sit at the feet of all-too-mortal men who exert power over the ignorant by interposing themselves between us and authentic experience of the mysteries of life.
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