Sleigh, Charlotte 1973-
Sleigh, Charlotte 1973-
Born 1973. Education: Attended University of Cambridge.
Office—Rutherford College, School of History, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NX, England. E-mail—[email protected]
University of Kent, Rutherford College, School of History, senior lecturer in history of science, 2000—.
Ant, Reaktion Books (London, England), 2003.
Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2007.
Charlotte Sleigh has spent the majority of her career at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, where she is a senior lecturer on the history of science. Sleigh "has been known as ‘the ant woman’ for some time now," according to her faculty profile for the University of Kent's History Department Web site, "on account of her research into the history of myrmecology, the science of ants." Her area of focus has led to the publication of two books on the history of how scientists have perceived ants through the ages: Ant, published in 2003, and Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology, published in 2007.
"Part history of science, part history of culture," Matthew Cobb stated in a review for the London Times Literary Supplement, "Six Legs Better uses the history of myrmecology as a focus for a sweeping survey of the interaction between science and culture through some of the decisive decades in the development of both expressions of human activity." Six Legs Better concentrates less on ants themselves and more on the lives of some of the researchers who have studied them. In particular, Sleigh highlights the careers of Auguste Forel, William Morton Wheeler, and Edward O. Wilson, none of whom began their careers as myrmecologists (ant specialists). Instead, each researcher brought the perspectives of his own discipline (respectively, psychiatry, natural history, and sociobiology) to the study of ants. "Forel's vision of ant behaviour emphasized plasticity over rigid instinct," declared Cobb; "Wheeler emphasized the importance of social behaviour in creating insect sociality; while Wilson focused on the role of communication." At the same time, each of these scientists, Sleigh points out, also tried to draw lessons about human behavior from observing the behavior of ant colonies. Their "views changed over the time period covered in the book from rather utopian to anarchistic without central control to self-organized and mathematical," explained Andrew V. Suarez in a review for BioScience. "The differences in scientific approach and in each scientist's perspective on social organization stemmed from both their backgrounds and the social and scientific context in which they worked."
The significance of the scientists' work, Sleigh notes, stretches far beyond the simple understanding of animal—or even human—behavior. Their findings had political implications as well. Forel, for instance, was a confirmed socialist, and his understanding of ant behavior was influenced by his political views. He viewed cooperation in an ant hill as a positive model for an ideal human socialist society. Harvard professor Wheeler had strong views about the role of mothers in raising children, and he saw a model for communal human nurturing in the communal feeding behaviors of ants, in which workers can draw sustenance directly from the stomachs of other ants. Wilson's understanding of ant behavior, based on the concept that simple stimuli can result in complex actions (part of modern chaos theory), helped shape the U.S. military's development of weapons systems beginning in the 1950s. "The seemingly minor discipline cast a long shadow, particularly through cybernetics, the study of communication principles common to machines and living things," wrote Gordon Grice in a review for the Wilson Quarterly. Grice added: "At every turn, Sleigh's inquiry leads back to intelligence and instinct, the opposing underlying principles often invoked to explain complex ant behavior." "These struggles," stated Anna Lena Phillips in a review for American Scientist, "provide a healthy reminder of how the cultural attitudes, personal tastes and fleeting whims of individual researchers deeply affect the formation and direction of scientific study." Six Legs Better, Cobb concluded, "is a provocative, complex account of a multifaceted period of cultural history. There is material here that will lead to a great deal of reflection by historians and scientists alike."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, September 1, 2007, Anna Lena Phillips, review of Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology, p. 462.
BioScience, May 1, 2008, Andrew V. Suarez, "Six Legs Best?," review of Six Legs Better, p. 463.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, July 1, 2004, review of Ant.
Isis, December 1, 2007, Joshua Blu Buhs, review of Six Legs Better, p. 855.
Quarterly Review of Biology, September 1, 2007, Bernd Heinrich, review of Six Legs Better, p. 261.
SciTech Book News, June 1, 2007, review of Six Legs Better.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), June 15, 2007, Matthew Cobb, "Eat My Wings," review of Six Legs Better, p. 25.
Wilson Quarterly, March 22, 2007, Gordon Grice, "Ants Are Us," review of Six Legs Better, p. 99.
University of Kent, History Department Web site,http://www.kent.ac.uk/history/ (July 24, 2008), author faculty profile.