Ehab Abouheif

for advancing evolutionary science

Consider the Ant, Watch its Ways, and Jot them Down 


His mother wanted him to become a dentist, and his father, more open-minded, a lawyer. But Ehab Abouheif chose science – evolutionary science, and is now happily located at McGill University as the Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology and holder of the 2014 Steacie Prize for natural sciences.

Why are the leaves green? And why do we have five fingers? It was questions like these that made Dr. Abouheif favour science to studying teeth and by-laws. It was mainly the philosophy behind being, and all beings, that inspired him the most. 

And thanks to his curiosity, we now have access to one extremely important discovery, one that has many implications on the way humans are treated as a species, and that could eventually help tackle the mechanisms that cause cancer. 

And it was mainly his fascination with ants that brought him thus far. 

Forming one of the most complicated societies after human beings, ants provide a great way to understand humans. Ants are territorial, and have class divides and an army; they practise diplomacy and spread propaganda. Their soldiers protect their colonies (and the queens, may they long live), and their workers forage for food. When they wish to expand their colony, they send out their workers to dance around their enemies’. The dance implies the size of the army – if bigger than theirs, they retreat.                                                       

Dr. Abouheif’s fascination with and focus on ants has lead him and his team at McGill University to discover a hidden trait, or a hidden potential that could be uncovered in ants, given the right circumstances.

He found out that if Pheidole ants are exposed to the right hormonal stressor at the right developmental stage, they could unlock potential that has been hidden for millions of years in their ancestral genes. They could induce supersoldiers, a large-headed ‘caste’ that has been lost for ~60 million years, but, thanks to Dr. Abouheif’s discovery, is now understood to be applicable to other species as well. 

A great affirmation to the argument that genetic makeup isn’t everything! The environment counts, too, naturally. This has practical applications, the crops from the Fertile Crescent have been brought to North America and domesticated here, and there features could be brought back. 

And now, with the time awarded him by the Steacie fellowship, Dr. Abouheif is focusing on writing a book, no less important than, and based on his discovery: A Theory of Meso-Evolution. A book that combines Micro-Evolution and Macro-Evolution. A book that creates a halfway, an in-between, and a meeting space for the two. 

And he doesn’t only create meeting spaces in science, but also for science and religion. He doesn’t like the current divide between them and thinks that they should peacefully co-exist.

However, the co-existence of science and religion should be properly studied and thought out in a logical and rational way. That is, religion being a metaphysical subject should not necessarily exclude it from rational discourse. 

For just as the bananas are going to be extinct in 10 years due to the lack of apt stressors that they were used to (yes, bananas will apparently go extinct, to the detriment of monkeys, and some humans), so should the scientific and religious discourse, with both their political agendas and ideas have “stressors” applied to them to re-contextualize them into conversing with each other, rather than excluding one another. 

Or, to put it in “antly” terms, the two should dance around each other, rather than watch one another from their own colonies. But unlike with ant-dances, no retreat should be necessary.

To learn more about Dr. Ehab Abouheif and his research, visit his website at http://biology.mcgill.ca/faculty/abouheif/

Photograph by: Martin Lipman