By Alice Laciny
When researching social organisms, interpreting their societies and behaviors in ways that draw parallels between humans and animals is particularly tempting. Working on ants during my PhD and postdoc years, I have come to find that the highly complex colony structures and interactions of social insects are especially popular targets for anthropomorphic comparisons. Scientific papers and news stories frequently liken ants and bees to scaled-down humans, with analogies ranging from “suicide bomber” exploding ants to “compassionate” workers rescuing injured nestmates. While these comparisons do have value for illustrative purposes, not recognizing them as simplifications or metaphors can lead to inaccurate interpretations of scientific data, thereby hampering our understanding of these fascinating animals.
I therefore became interested in the following question: How may these phenomena be interpreted differently by scientists with a “different” kind of mindset? Scientists who, compared to the majority of the population, might feel less connected to the workings of human societies? In other words, how may the perceptions and approaches of neurodivergent researchers come into play within social insect research?
The neurodiversity movement frames neurodevelopmental conditions (e.g., autism spectrum disorder) as part of the naturally occurring variation of human development, and recognizes the strengths and benefits of neurodivergent individuals, as well as their needs for support. Previous research suggests that autistic individuals tend to show greater attention to detail and less or different tendency toward common cognitive biases than the neurotypical population. For scientific practice, this raises the question if they would therefore focus on smaller-scale phenomena at the (sub-)individual level, as opposed to the (sometimes highly anthropomorphic) society-level questions often targeted in current research. However, most studies on autism in academia still emphasize the deficits and difficulties associated with autistic traits, and represent research about neurodivergent scientists, not by them. Bothered by this knowledge gap and craving an answer for my questions, an idea began to take shape.
My years as a postdoctoral fellow at the KLI were devoted to investigating the eco-evo-devo relationships between ants and parasites. During this time, the KLI’s diverse community of fellows brought with it important contacts and fruitful conversations that led me to view my purely zoological training through a critical lens and dare to ask more interdisciplinary research questions. This inspiring environment ultimately fostered and fueled the idea for the project at hand: In collaboration with Prof. Giorgia Silani (Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Vienna) and KLI alumna Sidney Carls-Diamante, PhD (Zukunftskolleg / Philosophy Department, University of Konstanz), we aim to combine our expertise, and venture into uncharted territory.
In surveying an international sample of social insect scientists, we will explore how autistic traits may shape thought patterns and scientific approaches in the social insect research community. Results of the online survey study will be interpreted from the standpoints of entomology, cognitive autism research, and philosophy of psychiatry. We thereby hope to better understand the impacts of neurodiversity in science, and show how unique modes of perception may inform scientific understanding.
Currently, women are still underrepresented in entomology and often overlooked within the neurodivergent community, leading to numerous intersectional challenges. I am therefore especially glad about the successful funding of this research project by the ÖAW L’ORÉAL fellowship within the “For Women in Science” program from November 1st 2021 to April 30th 2022. In the long run, we hope to use this opportunity to raise awareness for the importance of diversity in academia, help to destigmatize autistic traits, and contribute to a more inclusive and accessible academic landscape.
For more information on the online award ceremony for Alice Laciny’s ÖAW L’ORÉAL fellowship on Oct 27th, 2021, see https://stipendien.oeaw.ac.at/en/stipendien/loreal-austria