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The Ant Analogy

December 29, 2007

As a child, one of my favourite books was Insect Life, a cartoon-strip introduction to insect behaviour published in 1948. The date of publication is significant, since it comes shortly after the Second World War, the style of the book being influenced by wartime propaganda publications.

This was a book that exerted a fascination on me through its strange mixture of factuality and imagination. The chapters I enjoyed most were those in which insects were allowed to appear in humanised form: bees, silkworms, spiders, termites and ants. The Colorado beetle and the common house fly received no such anthropomorphising treatment. Instead, these pests were subjected to a damning by statistics in which one individual was seen to lead a cohort of offspring, their pyramidal marching formation suggesting interminable expansion in numbers.

The insects that seemed most “at ease” as humans were the bees, the termites and the ants. Individuals belonging to these groups appeared in various human outfits: scout leaders, women factory workers, soldiers, dandies, peasants, doctors, milkmaids or princesses. What these insects were shown to have in common with man is their social way of life, the comparison clinched by the specialisation of individual members of a colony to specific roles.

The chapter on termites always unsettled me, and now, reading through it again, I see it was meant to, being introduced in the following terms: “Here is the Nazi of the insect world, living to destroy. Ruthlessly efficient, backed by infiltration and fifth column tactics undreamed of even by Hitler, a Termite sacrifices everything, life itself where necessary, for the common purposes of destruction.”

The termite chapter ends with a different analogy, one which points towards the future. The second to last frame is a picture of a termitary, darkly shadowed at sunset, its mud towers reaching skywards. Beneath the picture, a caption reads: “When the young princes and princesses have flown to their martyrdom, the openings of the gloomy prison close for another year.” The last frame is a scene of a city in the style of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, long lines of commuters disappearing into the dark entrance of buildings whose stark towers resemble the termitary. Underneath is written: “With eyes, sex and wings sacrificed to the common good, the termites in their joyless tomb provide both an example and a terrible warning of what may be man’s own destiny.”

This demonising view of the termite contrasts strongly with the next chapter about ants which are portrayed as courageous and inventive animals, despite the fact that their social mode of life is really not so far removed from the termites’. The South African naturalist Eugene Marais had a lifelong fascination for termites. Where the writer of Insect Life saw sinister machinations in the termites’ behaviour, Marais observed deep mystery. In his book The Soul of the White Ant, first published in 1928, Marais expounded his view that the termite is not a group of organisms functioning as a society, but a single colonial organism in which the individuals act as “cells,” and in which specialisation of individuals creates various different “organs” within the “body” of the termitary.

This idea of a colony so well organised, so specialised, so perfectly reproducible that the various polymorphic forms of ant or termite begin to resemble different organs of the body, starts to hint that insect societies are not really that similar to human societies after all. Individual humans are adaptable, both mentally and physically. A person whose job becomes redundant can retrain to do something else. As naturalist Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous, observed in his book Ants, published in 1930: “man does not find his tools growing upon his body; he has to make them in infinite variety.” For Huxley, the comparison of ants and men is a misleading enterprise. He begins his book by stating boldly that: “Innumerable comparisons have been made between human society and the social organisation of ant, bee, or termite… almost without exception the moral has been false.”

A few years ago, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, James M. Costa reviewed how philosophers and writers down the ages have perceived insect societies, and the lessons they have drawn for mankind. He notes how the 17th-Century English philosopher and writer of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, viewed the society of ants as providing a model of the natural law which dictates that every society requires a strong leader at its head: the queen bee or ant. He was writing at a time when England lacked exactly that: a strong ruler.

Kropotkin, on the other hand, an anarchist and early communist writing in revolutionary Russia, interpreted ant society as a successful model of socialist values in which every worker had a role and a defined place, working unanimously towards the success of society. Costa shows in his paper that the lessons insect societies hold for mankind depend very much on the eye of the beholder. The advantage for a philosopher who “goes to the ant” for his philosophy is that it will seem that what he presents to his reader is a “natural” law. For Costa, this is a dangerous aspect. For what is really a “natural” law, when interpretation is nine parts of the result?

While Huxley went out of his way to note the differences between ant and human societies, the American myrmecologist Caryl P. Haskins took the opposite approach. In his book Of Ants and Men, published in 1939, he compared the lives of insect and man in a myriad of ways ranging from the morphological to the behavioural. The danger of this approach is that we very soon start to suspect that Haskins knows much more about ants than he does about men, and what is more, that he is projecting his own cultural bias onto his interpretations.

For example, he compares the evolution of three major ant groups: the Ponerines, the Myrmicines and the Formicines to “evolution” of human society from primitives, to empire-builders and, finally, to pioneers. Of Ponerines he says: “The young are, for ants, extremely athletic, competent, and able to care for themselves, exactly as the children of primitive peoples display an early competence which belies their later deficiency.” Or: “the ease with which the entire economy of the colony may be overturned by a very slight alteration of the environment all bespeak primitiveness.” So much for Ponerines who are, eventually, dismissed as carnivorous, barbaric and always on the move looking for new prey on which to feast.

Of Myrmicines Haskins notes: “the life span of the Queen increased while the stature of the workers decreased” and “the Queen founds colonies among inhospitable regions.” Suddenly, it seems we are reading about the British Empire in miniature… But, the Myrmicines are not plastically adaptive because of their “sanguine disposition.”

Haskins reserves his highest praise for the Formicine subfamily which “excels all other ants.” He describes these ants as pushing “hard upon the edges of the (American continent’s) melting glaciers … an aggressive, sensitive band of pioneer Formicines” whose “simplicity in social life is evident” and who “rely on their own resourcefulness.” What is disturbing about these descriptions, apart from their ill-founded, ethnocentric point of view, is that observations proceed from philosophical insight. They are driven by a preconceived model.

Finally, I’d like to return to that image of the termitary I mentioned at the beginning of this article, with the setting sun behind it, and ask: is the termitary really a good analogy for today’s metropolises: the long lines of commuters filing away into their office buildings? Is the visual analogy, the societal analogy really sufficiently compelling that we should take this warning about our own future seriously?

It is a relevant question. Millions of people around the world already pass much of their waking lives in this way. Have their “eyes, sex and wings been sacrificed to the common good”? Do they spend their lives in a “joyless tomb” as the author of Insect Life suggests? Certainly, I recognise a certain physical truth in the analogy, but I also believe that there is no useful conclusion to be drawn from it simply because, and it is as simple and important as this: a human is not an ant.

Those people working in office blocks are real people, people who love and share and think and feel. It remains the case even though we are distanced from them physically, by their inaccessibility, by the media of disasters or by the disinterested cinema camera. If we look at them from afar, they may seem to be behaving like termites or ants, but when we look at them close up we see that they are as human as all the other human creatures on the planet. In this context, I think it is important to recall again the words of Julian Huxley: whenever comparison between humans and ants is made, “without exception the moral has been false.”

by Jonathan Wonham

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  1. December 31, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for a thoughtful, informative essay.

  2. Just Curious
    February 23, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Do you remember the author of the book INSECT LIFE? It seems very familiar and I may have stumbled across the same book as a child, but it was so long ago I don’t remember the exact title or author. However, I do recall a book about insects that showed a very detailed B&W illustration of their (termite?) city or empire at one point in the book. Appreciate any info. Thanks!

  3. October 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    The only information I can recall is that it was published by Time-Life books, presumably during the 2nd World War. It was a hardback with a red cloth cover. I suspect it is very difficult to find.

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