by William Olkowski

republished again today 11.21.14 previously 2.1.12

“Consider the Ant” is good advice. After all, as social experiments go, ant colony life looks robust. Ants go back, way back, when Insects started in or before the Cambrian Geological period almost 400 million years ago (mya). So they must have experimented and learned a bunch over the million of years, right? Well, from my view it’s a heartless social organization, not worth emulating. But one can learn from almost any bad idea. But then again their survival over this long period tells something we may want to learn from.

The ant, remember is not one species. Estimates for the number of ant species run over 9,000 species so far (see Wilson’s famous book on the Ants of the World). Will we fragment into 9,000 species of humans? We certainly can’t get along with each other, much like ants, who raid and kill each other, take war victims, have slave raids, and just march out of the colony to die when its time. And many people operate just like ants with someone else calling the shots.

An Exception

One exception amongst so many is the Argentine Ant, (Linepithema humile (used to be : Iridomyrmex humulis), common throughout the southern US and elsewhere by now. This species does not war between colonies, but interrelates. Queens walk off with a few hundred or so workers and start up another colony. Basically it’s one giant, giant, giant, etc., ant colony from coast to coast. These omnivorous species, accidentally introduced to N. America in coffee shipments from Brazil are really beneficial species as they attack the troublesome fire ants and subterranean termites.

To get them to attack a termite nest you have to help them along by opening the termite nest at one of its branches. I did this once and watched the ants swarm into the nest eliminating it. Could the bothersome house invader from S. America be a good model for us humans? We could get along with each other if there were fewer of us, maybe. Or do we need evolutionary changes?

What Have the Ants Learned So Far?

And what have all those ants learned so far? What have they learned that we can learn from? They are certainly older than us mammals, but that means they have shifted enough, species-wise, to get thru some mighty big environmental changes. We mammals got thru the last few ice ages probably by eating meat including shell fish, and the age of the dinosaurs by going underground. We made it thru many thousands of years of drought, which is a good start, but we were near extinction many times. And for the big changes ahead we look rather poorly prepared. At least something was in control of ant colony life – the queen – with her hormones and directing pheromones.

But the automation evident in ant colonies leaves me feeling vapid. I don’t want that kind of limited life for me as an individual. So we mammals bought freedom with pain and suffering. Still, maybe ants have pain and suffering, too. Other vertebrate animals I have known certainly suffer pain, sadness, loneliness, and fear. Invertebrates, I don’t know. Bees are certainly smart.

Lessons from Sheep

We learned a great deal from sheep when we were sheepherders in the 1990s. One stormy night with high frequency of lightning I got worried about how the sheep were doing. Once you take on sheep you get to really know what dependency means. You are responsible for food, water, their health, shelter, and even their emotions, especially fear. Your job is providing freedom, freedom from famine, thirst, disease and fear.

They give you in return meat, wool, and each mouth, a mowing machine. But there’s no day off for them or us. And they will all die if they think it’s a good idea. You can surely see that it’s a symbiotic relationship. You must even worry about when they worry and it’s detectable. I’ll give you an example.

A Night in a Rainstorm on a Ridge above the Sacramento Valley, CA

So this night with a rainstorm falling full of lightning I go up the hill and there they all are huddled around a donkey. We kept donkeys with our sheep to protect them from coyotes and mountain lions, ever present in our back foothills. Never lost any to these feared predators for well over the 5-8 years we had donkey protection. An aside: donkeys are cheaper than guard dogs, as donkeys can eat grasses, which we grow; dogs need dog food, a purchased item.

So I am in the pasture with the sheep and donkeys, rain is falling heavily and lightning is coming less than 5-10 seconds apart. The light creates recognizable walls of silhouettes. I know that the shorter the time between flashes the closer the lightning, and I get some fear. But the sheep are virtually shoulder-to-shoulder to the two guard donkeys. Normally sheep and donkeys don’t like each other but tolerate the other species. We force them together but given the choice there would not be so close. The sheep have made a good decision. If the lightning hits close, it will hit the higher headed donkeys. Once I realize I am standing higher than the donkeys, too tall for safety, I go back to bed.

Ants Shift for Humans?

Should we switch to an ant-like colonial life, or will we remain like human-sheep? Maybe it’s a matter of the known enemy is better than the unknown enemy, or something like that. I like the idea of division of labor, but to make it a caste inherited by birth (=genes) is too strict. Hindu society was structured like that but it’s an obvious violation of freedom for those on the bottom.

Our civilization makes it even more difficult than merely a matter of freedom. Ours just lets those on the bottom starve and die from lack of help. And we just keep on reproducing without any deliberate brakes. But disease knows no boundaries for the most part. Sure the elites can hide behind their gates and walls, but microbes can sneak in without being seen. We are all connected, ants, sheep and humans. What we do to the web we do to ourselves.

Organize Behind Freedom?

Freedom is a good idea. Freedom, without pain and suffering produced by freedom is the best. This maybe the only way forward as a criterion for any social/political/genetic changes now contemplated. One guy I heard wants to use stem cell research by applying it to add wings to the human body. That’s so wild an idea that I am sure it’s for attention purposes. But freedom or even wings cannot be imposed unless people want it. Most people make the cage they live within. They even get to like it. But that’s the bad angel of my nature speaking up. Got to watch out for him, or is it a her?

Organize Around Compassion?

And then there is compassion. Do ants have compassion?

The real tragedy of the fight over not teaching evolution or even giving religion equal time as an alternative view is that evolution is a cruel process I feel we must, as humane people, resist. If that is part of the law of life I don’t want it, so in a way, me and the religious nuts overlap. But how can you resist something you don’t know anything about and even refuse to learn about? These people don’t know evolution exists because they are using all their mental energy to resist knowing about it and how it works. Sure, the geological and archeological record is wrong. The earth and all its being was created in 6 days about 6,000 years ago. When myths compete for real hard won knowledge we are in trouble.

I am for medical interventions as a way to reduce pain and suffering. This sort of thing is a cultural creation, but still due to the same forces of evolution. So cultural evolution fights traditional evolution, the dog-eat-dog evolution attributed wrongly to Darwin. Ants don’t have medical interventions. In fact ants maybe model bureaucrats. But having only one female to produce most young maybe is a good idea as the birth rate could be regulated more easily than if every female can reproduce willy-nilly.

And ants have chemical evolution as their principle communication system (along with sight); we have sound and sight. We both have tactile communications as well. So when two ants meet of the same colony they smell each other, sometimes share food, feces when young, and touch. This keeps them organized as food searchers, nurses, soldiers, and kings or queens. Our boundaries are more fluid changeable as situations change.


But the phrase – from the Bible I think – about considering the ant has that other rider about Being Wise. So where is the wisdom in the ant world? Could it be in the vast experimentation done in organizing the colony? Could the colony be the agent of evolution that is favored or selected out as the colony meets the exigencies of living? I think the agent of evolution is the colony not the individual alone. It’s really both, and the pressure is simultaneous. And that is a bit of wisdom applicable to humans. We need to learn how to cooperate. There the ant has a long time ahead of us. The individuals gave up their reproductive actions to focus on the job of maintaining a living. But it turn out they did not give up too much as their fellow workers are all sisters. So by helping a sister and not reproducing yourself you can make a good life. Is that their learned message?

Wisdom is the love of knowledge and is gained by applying knowledge and seeing that there is more to be learned. There is always more to be learned. And nobody has learned it all, nor will. And that’s one of the great truths from a search for wisdom. You never get there because it recedes like all ideals. It’s in the search where the fun is. Oh, well back to the search. End.