Small Matters

Millions of years ago, leafcutter ants learned to grow fungi. But how? And why? And what do they have to teach us?

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Mueller switches on a headlamp. “We’re trying to track things back, but we won’t find the ‘ancestor’ out here, of course,” he explains. “What we’re looking for is a species that has retained some of the traits that characterized the ancestor.” It’s not unlike how linguists visit isolated peoples to study how patterns of speech have changed, he says. “That’s something like what we’re doing here, looking at how the most primitive behavior might have yielded more elaborate behavior.” Evolution, in other words, plays out less neatly than the clear lines that you might remember from junior high school and more like a film in which sequences can repeat, remain unchanged or even run backward in a kind of counternarrative. 



Mueller’s pants are streaked with sweat and mud, flaming welts dot his neck and arms, and mosquitoes buzz near his ears. “We’re a bit abnormal in our obsessions,” he admits. “We’re really on the extreme. Who else would sweat in the forest in order to find these stupid ants!”


As a child, Mueller says, he “wasn’t much interested in bugs.” Perhaps this was because his father, a botanist for the Bayer chemical company, was stricken by a mysterious tropical disease contracted on an expedition in El Salvador when Ulrich was just 4 years old. Mueller was 9 when his father died of the disease. After dropping out of medical school, he read Edward O. Wilson’s controversial book Sociobiology (an effort to link the behavior of all animals, from ants to humans, in one grand synthesis). Immediately he knew what he wanted to do with his life, to take “an evolutionary approach to understanding animal behavior, social behavior, and then human behavior.”


Schultz, too, came to ants through a circuitous route influenced by Wilson. Raised in a small, blue-collar town south of Chicago, the son of parents who did not go to college, Schultz went to a strict Lutheran school. There, one of his teachers tried to convince him that “dinosaur bones were just buried in the ground by God to test our faith.”


After dropping out of the University of Chicago and drifting west to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Schultz held a series of jobs—dental technician, water bed upholsterer, and printer—before trying his hand as a writer of critical essays about paranormal phenomena (“Blobs From Space” and “Stranger than Science”). On his way to work one morning, Schultz, then in his 30s, began reading Wilson’s The Insect Societies. Ants attracted him because they combined “aesthetic appeal” with tangibility. “I was chasing a lot of things that filled me with wonder,” Schultz recalls. “But I needed a criterion for figuring out not just those things that appear to be filled with wonder, but those things that appear to be filled with wonder and are real.”


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