Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How to Defeat the Evils of Nepotism

As you've probably noticed, I'm quite fond of comparing honeybees to humans. We both exist in complex social systems that aim to sustain us. We both love honey. We humans love to name things. (Do honeybees have names for us? Perhaps certain buzz frequencies that signify "human?") We distinguish between individual things and the groups in which they congregate. A colony of bees. A gaggle of geese. A parliament of owls. An army of frogs. A knot of toads. (The list goes on...)

But what of ourselves?? A family of humans? A culture of humans? A society of humans? We map family trees based on sexual relations that produce babies. Is this the only way to distinguish our kin?

The family tree of a honeybee colony would resemble a thick, round shrub more than a towering oak: a drone might be his mother's lover. Although the prolific deadbeat dad has challenged the patriarchal system of organization, most women in America still change their last names upon marriage to signify membership in a new system of kinship. The idea of family is defined in this way: the Griffins, the McChards, the Plakiai...

The queen bee's mating flight lasts for two to three days and intimately involves between 10 and 25 drones, depending on her penchant for doing the nasty. This rowdy sexcapade is productive enough for the queen to never mate again. She carries the sperm inside of her, and deposits sperm and egg in a honeycomb cell to create a female worker bee, and egg alone to create a male drone. She will continue depositing egg and sperm into honeycomb cells unceasingly for the remainder of her life.

In the bee world, if a mother queen dies unexpectedly, worker bees will feed royal jelly to a handful of larvae. Imagine you are a female worker bee. Your mom just died and you must replace her. You are in charge of choosing the cells in which you will deposit royal jelly. Cell A contains the larvae of some random chick. Cell B contains the larvae of your sister. Interestingly, entomologists have noted that you will almost always choose your sister's larvae. Bees are nepotists!

Natural selection does trump nepotism. Remember that you must feed royal jelly to more than one larval bee. When the virgin queens emerge, they duke it out to the death, and the last one standing becomes royalty.

Nepotism is, therefore, a natural-enough tendency. But I've got problems with it. When I was in middle school, I was a "bad influence." Or so it seemed to the mothers of my female friends. In reality, I was incredibly unhappy, as most teenagers tend to be, and did not need to be excommunicated from my only friends by overprotective moms. (Seriously, if I didn't peer pressure your daughter into smoking weed, somebody else would've. And that somebody might have been a scary old man instead of sweet little me.)

Of course moms are protective of their kids, but calling a 13-year-old on the phone and forbidding her to speak to, let alone be friends with, her daughter is just plain cruel. I'm not the only bad influence to have this happen, either. The result of the mother bee's overreaction is a super-strong, super-small kinship system that excludes anyone who doesn't share a last name.

Does this mean that it is wrong for the worker bee to choose her sister to become queen? Well, this is the point at which my argument falls apart.

We 'Mericans tend to like our circles close-knit, uniform, and exclusive. But kinship need not be familial. When like-minded, inspired individuals work together to create a supportive, productive community, a new kind of family is born. Like a honeybee colony, each individual is important only insofar as she is part of a whole.

When people work together toward a common goal that is both satisfying and fruitful, something magical happens.

We're no longer alone in this confusing world!

In this way, life bursts forth from concrete, life free from nepotism.

At Added Value, when we harvest, cook, and eat meals on the farm together, we say this blessing:

We thank the sun and the air,

the water and the soil,

the many hands it took to grow this food,

and the many hands it took to prepare it.

I love my many families.

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