Since summer is coming to a close, and I was in my back garden this morning, I thought I’d write a little bit on this common question from the classroom. It comes in several varieties, but mostly it has stemmed from some unpleasant encounter with the little striped beasties that resulted in stings and tears, or at the least a flurry of ineffective arm waving. It’s an interesting question because we can look at it from a number of perspectives.
1) Biological – When we talk about wasps, we are usually referring to the common wasp Vespula vulgaris (notice the latin here – Vespa is Italian for wasp, vulgar refers to common or popular, not bad taste! You will find many common organisms have the species name vulgaris in the binomial naming system). There are however hundreds of different wasp species, any of which are important parasites of other insect pests. The common wasp is omnivorous, preying on insects early in the yearly cycle (late spring to autumn) as food for larvae, and feeding on sugary nectar early in spring and summer. Larvae produce a sugary secretion the adults feed on, but later in summer this is insufficient for adults that start to feed on high sugar sources (like your drinks and food). So the ‘point’ of a wasp is the that it is a part of an ecosystem and food chain. Removing the wasps would affect other organisms in the ecosystem. From this perspective, the question of what is the point of any particular organism becomes redundant. Which brings us to…
2) Philosophy of the question – Asking what is the ‘point’ of something comes with a lot of assumptions. For example, it is an assumption that there is a point, at least in the a way that would make sense to us. If we asked what was the point of bees, worms and giraffes, you might answer something along the lines of pollination, soil aeration and…well, what is the point of a giraffe? The first two answers of course look at what is the point of the animal in relation to us – we get something out of pollination and healthy soils. This is the root of the problem; the original question could be rephrased with the missing assumption ‘What do wasps do for me?‘. Not a lot, but why do you think they should? is a reasonable answer.
This approach of seeing things through your own perspective is a subtle trap for scientists, and one that you should try to avoid. In science we go to great lengths to take the personal out of the subject; we often write using the passive voice for example, and try to avoid personal bias in research and experiments. This is similar to anthropomorphism that we have mentioned in the class – giving human attributes to animals and inanimate objects (…the sugar molecules want to move through the membrane…) and although it is difficult to avoid doing it we should make efforts to be more scientific with our language. Ascribing meaning to events only in terms of cost or benefit to ourselves is sloppy thinking.