On ants and infection.

On ants and infection.

I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.

Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.

IU officials “have seen a photothat shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.

I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.


Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.

When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.

My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.

Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.

Infection is almost always lethal.

If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.


The FDA will approve any Covid-19 vaccine that cuts risk by half. It’s very unlikely that a Covid-19 vaccine will cut the risk by more than about two-thirds, and the vaccine will work least well for people who need protection most.

Most likely, the Covid-19 epidemic will end before there’s vaccine. The herd immunity threshold seems to be much lower than some researchers feared – our current data suggest that the epidemic will end after about 40% of the population has immunity.

The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.

In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.

In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.


The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.

Most schools ban socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.

Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.

In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.

I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.

This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.


We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.

Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.

A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.

I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.

With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.


When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.

When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.

Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”

Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.

Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”

When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.


It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.


Erika Meitner’s 2006 poem “Pediatric Eschatology” begins

the nurse called back and told us to use bleach
on anything we touch, she said wash everything
in hot water
, insisted we won’t treat you if
you’re asymptomatic, we won’t
, and made us
an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited
with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters

It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.

Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.


I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.

But, punishing young people for socializing?

We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.

Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.

Red ant: photograph by William Cho

On the potential psychological ramifications of certain insular societies, or: that fraternity video in the news.

After N woke up from her nap, I strapped her into the jogging stroller and took her to the local playground.  Holding my hands, she stomped around while I dripped on her: a sudden blast of warm air from the south brought summer-like weather to our town today.  Then, after about twenty minutes of stomping, and thirty seconds of warily sitting on the swing, we jogged home, got the car, and drove to school to pick up K.

K told me, “You should write an essay about that fraternity video.”

I scoffed.  “Why?  I don’t think anybody who’s studied this would be surprised.”

“Then write that.”

So, voila!  I did!  You just read it!

But I suppose I could elaborate slightly.

CaptureFraternities are exclusive groups.  You have to rush to get an invitation to join a house, and for most fraternities you then have to survive some form of hazing.  Most fraternities have ostensibly done away with “bad” hazing, things like driving pledges to another town and having them find their way home, physical abuse, that kind of thing, but “party” type hazing, like sleep deprivation, or imbibing near-toxic quantities of alcohol, is still pretty widespread.  And most fraternities have induction rituals that resemble psychological conditioning, sloughing off the shell of childhood and family and emerging a brother and a man.

One consequence of these rituals is that people’s behaviors, at least within the confines of their house (where “house” can also include other physical locations if many brothers are nearby), can shift.  Like, you have people who weren’t bad dudes growing up, and aren’t bad dudes in class, and in all likelihood won’t be bad dudes once they graduate and move on with their lives, but who can act like total jerks during their time in the fraternity.  In a closed environment, there’s always that pressure to push things a little farther to impress your buddies.

2009-03-20_610_N_Buchanan_Blvd_in_DurhamI think the Duke lacrosse scandal is also a good example of this: closed group, they’d all proven their physical toughness to one another in initiation, practices, games, et al., but there was a constant pressure to maintain that edge.

And, sure, it was unfair that they were treated as though guilty of rape by the DA despite their being no evidence and hugely confounding factors in the initial accusation, but they had chanted obscenities like “n—–, n—–, n—–” and shouted “Hey b—-, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt” at departing strippers whom they’d hired a portion of the “food budget” (huge quantities of money) they’d been given by their coach (as documented in William Cohan’s generally pro-player “The Price of Silence”).

Or you could read something like “Sexual Assault on the College Campus: The Role of Male Peer Support,” which documents some of the psychological factors besetting young men who spend lots of time in those all-male, insular environments like sports teams or fraternities.  The homogeneity of the groups, coupled with the intense pressure to prove your own self-worth, accentuates violence directed at outsiders.

NEXT0308ReevesOr you could read something like Judge Carlton Reeves’s speech to three young white men who beat a 48-year-old black man nearly to death before running him over with a truck.  Of particular importance might be the line:

“What is so disturbing… so shocking… so numbing… is that these n—– hunts were perpetuated by our children… students who live among us… educated in our public schools… in our private academies… students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates… average students and honor students.”

Point being, they weren’t bad kids.  Those SAE brothers in Oklahoma: they aren’t bad kids either.

Maybe that sounds weird.  Maybe it’d be better to phrase it as, they’re not much worse than average.  And, yeah, that statement would really impugn the average, but I think that’s fair.  Our average, in this country, is not very good.

I think this is the point of the essay where there’s supposed to be a pithy summary statement, but I’m not sure I have one.  How about, vile institutions can take a tiny seed of evil and help it bloom into a big ol’ bunga bangkai of hate.