lisa margonelli

lisa margonelli.png

not sure of my intro to underbug.. but there it came.. which intro’d me to Lisa


taking her in more here (also watched her 2010 oil tedx and a book talk from 2018):

What Termites Can Teach Us About Technology, Ethics, and Being Human – from a 2018 Zócalo event

1 hr – []

3 min – about half papers on termites are about how to kill them.. most fundings are from insecticide companies

4 min – the termites in the mound stay kids forever.. the pheromone suppresses their development and they never grow up – neotony..t

neotony – the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal.

5 min – skin (since didn’t develop) is see thru..  can see insides – 500 diff microbes.. they have like a molecular wrecking yard in their gut

what do termites do..t

7 min – here.. 1\ they construct nests inside your house.. in africa.. 2\ they build mounds w/o a plan

8 min – termites are really into sound

3\ they tend to fungus underneath.. they do everything for it..

9 min – the mound is essentially a lung.. it ventilates.. diffuse air thru mound.. regulates temp.. keeps gas mixture healthy.. so the termites can breathe.. need right mixture of moisture for king and queen

king and queen mature.. in each mound tends a group of termites who aren’t developmentally suppressed.. winged termites.. those are kings and queens.. almost all of them get eaten.. by humans/chimps.. they’re fatty, bitter, ..

12 min – lots of kings and queens fly off.. break wings off.. find a nest.. bite off ends of antennas.. reduces sensations.. because going to spend all time making millions of babies

13 min – i can see why they looked at these in beginning – saying.. this is a monarchy.. then since then.. a utopia.. a factory.. lots look at them as humans in bug suits.. ie: have king and queen and everyone else useless.. or.. a factory.. but turns out .. not these..t

14 min – 80% of the termites are screwing around.. like a danish village.. a good place to live.. each own personality – and have memories.. can you imagine 5 mn termites in a mound w diff personalities..t

never nothing going on ness

15 min – 25 groups of 2 termites.. not like 50.. they do diff things.. one theory is that they are like neurons in a brain – so they sense who they are at 50 rather than 2

17 min – they have a mushroom body for a brain..

they build w no plan.. totally driven by feedback.. they have a sense.. we assume they’re following certain rules.. as if they were a video game.. but maybe they don’t

18 min – when they build they build autonomously.. and that’s why roboticists study them.. we’d like robots to just do things

19 min – termites have 2 amazing things: 1\ can build autonomously and can 2\ eat wood (build biofuels)..  two things humans want to do ..t

and the other thing.. 3\ termites have restored land that seemed to be dead..t

20 min (on 8 diff disciplines studying them).. physicists: do it like we did it .. make rules.. biologists: everything is mushy here

at least 3000 kinds of termites.. descended from cockroaches..

23 min – superorganism is a great/rich way to think of them.. work together and form diff parts of one body

one ness

but actually scientific concept of superorg isn’t that helpful.. was huge in 20s..

25 min – we don’t know if termites are conscious.. we don’t even know if fellow humans are conscious.. we know they have group cognition.. but that’s diff than consciousness

26 min – they (synthetic biologists) can’t understand what’s going on in the cell w their brains.. cell has complex feedback mechs w/in it that give it a sort of will.. decides not going to produce chemical they want.. doesn’t behave like a computer.. t

what computers can’t do

question is whether can we extract the cell enough so human brain can understand it

and/or.. is that even important.. i’m thinking what’s more important is the energy of 7bn alive people.. so begs we free art\ists (aka: all of us) first

27 min – military are interested in how termites have group cognition.. to understand ie: the landscape might give pic of whole..

28 min – also biofuel.. can be used as missile fuel

29 min – and then the very sophisticated robots/drones – as weapons ie: 1bn robots $1 each dropped and scans area; 1 robot.. goes to one person finds out who they are and kills them or not

30 min – using drones allows for an abstraction of power.. politics in us are based on who’s in danger..

31 min – drones.. also for space exploration; farm crops; build things on mars; clean pool filters;.. probably the less exotic is where we’d end up

the exotic: building on mars..  ie: the mounds have this sort of unplanned organic structure (they don’t first guarantee it will stand.. if it falls.. they either rebuild or not).. and that tends to prevail..

ie: 10x us in weight

32 min – so could send to mars.. termites could sense local conditions and build something that would stand up

33 min – got a negative of a mound (filled it w plaster paris)  – it allowed you to see what mound looks like inside.. rather than just wacking thru one place

35 min – one thing they learned.. they were trying to figure out how mounds worked w air.. they didn’t get that.. but they did get a real idea that there were central tubes for air and spongy tubes for air..

36 min – beavers and muskrats and wasps.. ants.. have done similar.. (we don’t really understand any of them)

ants and bees studied more.. wasps studied less.. most studies on termites.. are how to kill them .. they have robust immune systems so harder to kill

37 min – nature of individuality – termites are a challenge for darwin ism.. because only king/queen are subjects of selection

39 min – now new wrench in whole question.. do we also count the microbes.. so for termites.. is it the termite, all of the termites.. microbe.. ie: where is one.. so and evolving of how complexity is built in nature

the it is me.. never just me

everybody is trying to understand how do simple/little/local things make complex wholes

40 min – microbial philosophers just have to guess

i think there’s everything to learn from termites.. ie: feedback systems they use to build mounds.. global to local.. not decisions.. but some pattern.. we don’t understand that

41 min – waiting for carnot (thermodynamics) .. a master theory to explain what’s going on.. when they do we’ll be in a very diff tech place.. a lot of moral decisions to make

42 min – ie: is it right for weapons to make non rational decisions..?.. and how do we get the tech we want..? who decides.. ? the scientists.. society at large..

every one of us.. ie: tech as it could be..

begs we focus on all of us mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity – Luma Mufleh

best safety/ethics: gershenfeld something else law

w chemistry.. the marketplace makes the decision.. ie: and bill gates..

44 min – what do you hope people will get from book: 1\ termites are amazing and we don’t know that much about them and they reveal how little we understand about this changing world and how it really works underneath and 2\ if you’re  going to become a little bit bug.. you really need to expand your idea of what a human is and really take responsibility for being human and think about what we’re doing w this tech and what is the life that we want to have..t

(so you want to get away from termites themselves and look at something that’s really important): yeah.. but i also think that looking at termites makes you understand how important that is.. or at least it did for me..t

1 min clip from above at 44 min – []

45 min – (on watching her termites) – it’s a good thing to watch and realize.. i don’t know how the world works.. i think i should pay attention..t

46 min – termite fighting.. probably my next 10 years.. each termite mound surrounded by a kind of hexagon – territorial

47 min – the big drone stuff is already happening.. 2008 – 2 or 3 along border.. now like 14..

48 min – we’re pretty far from ie: little robotic bee that can fly and kind of see/communicate.. the time from a prototype to a real thing.. is a while.. but.. ie: 1975 to 95 for microsoft.. another 20 yrs from kitty hawk to jets.. so .. 20 years cycles ish

52 min – all termites are not part of the same brain.. that’s what makes it possible for  us to live.. in theory termites out weigh us 10 to 1.. they are not all communicating.. however.. our gut bacteria are talking to our brains..  maybe they’re communicating w our gut bacteria.. all sorts of things communication/complexity going on that we kind of ignore because.. oh i’m a human i don’t have to deal w that.. i think understanding this complexity/termite/et al.. is going to change our ideas of who we are..

55 min – besides tech.. philosophical evolution (from all these learnings).. whole field of biology..

one thing i think is interesting is how we use abstractions to understand complexity.. so abstractions are taking the complexity out of the complexity so that you can understand the complexity


56 min – so building the models reveals insights about the world the way it is.. which is really interesting.. what the real world is .. because a lot of what is being done people create prototypes/abstractions that are very abstracted.. so that they are essentially symbolic *representations of what we hope is going on in the world as opposed to models that reflect what might be actually going on in the world..t

*rep ness

**then too.. what could (naturally) be going on in the world (we have no idea).. if we would let go of ie: control issues (which is why i believe we haven’t yet gotten to global equity – everyone getting a go everyday)

57 min – the book doesn’t really focus on entomologists  it focuses on what is happening w these other fields coming into biology.. entomologists see bugs.. these people saw them as all kinds of weird things.. ie: a force on the dirt.. one field was actually going to erase them from their scans and just look at the dirt



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New book : A Tale of Termites and Technology from Sci-Am/FSG. Old book: Oil On the Brain. Deputy Editor: .

east coast

her site:

I grew up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, on a back-to-the-land farm. We heated our house with wood and for a time we used a horse to pull the logs out of the woods. Later we got an old tractor with a PTO that could be connected to a hydraulic wood splitter. My sister Becky and I had flocks of sheep and a small business selling yarn, among other schemes to make money. I left the farm for Yale, then for Africa, Asia, and finally–from 1993-2012–San Francisco and Oakland, California. Over the years I did construction, waited on tables, cleaned fish, and taught English.