Ants

Well, I’m not on the road again yet, but I am out of town on Holiday. Barb and I went to Truckee (CA) to belatedly celebrate our anniversary and get some much needed recreational time. One of the peculiarities of our relationship is that I need much less sleep than does she, so I’m writing this in the common room of the Truckee Hotel while she saws logs upstairs.

I’m still doing my quarterly review of the previous season in my personal journal (I meant to finish by the end of the first week of fall!) and I’m discovering many entries that I saw at the time of writing as having potential for the e-mail/blog. Since I’m still sending out these missives, and now less harried by the rush of travel, maybe this would be a good time to share some of them.

Back in August, while in New York City awaiting the T.V. interview that never happened, I frequently waxed pessimistic on account of the sheer numbers of people completely, utterly, and devotedly unaware of the environment as anything other than an occasional headline on a story they know better than to read. In any large urban region, the evidence of an existence beyond the city is almost impossible to detect. Well, obviously not. But it is so easily ignored that probably fewer than one in a thousand spend any time aware of the larger environment. I’ve come to summarize this phenomenon this way: Like cancer cells buried deep within the growth, we cannot see beyond the tumor. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the observation applies to us all, city bound or not.

At the time, though, despite knowing I’m not the first to do so, I couldn’t help compare cities to nests of ants. But, knowing how little we know about the mysteries and even the processes that constitute life, I went/go farther than many: I wonder if ants have a diversified culture. Hopefully, those of you who immediately cringe at the very use of the word “culture” in the context of “ant society” will bear with me while I do a little mental meandering.

The queen, being incapable of significant movement, must be supplied by helpers to survive. That, in and of itself, implies significant, even if limited, diversity. But I wonder, do the ants doing that duty ever leave the confines of their underground labyrinth? Are the hunters we see roving the surface only periodic visitors below ground, most often going into “the city” only when obligated to drop off the treasures of their work in some staging area for the underground residents to pick up and deliver deeper into the innards of the community. I wonder if the marauders usually even sleep underground, or if they are more apt to choose some place under a nice quiet, dark leaf somewhere. Do the hunters feel closer to nature than the blind interior workers? Are they sanctimonious about their superior existence, as I, and so many of us who’ve managed to move to the countryside tend to be?

The “Interiors,” ants confined to the underground world, surely see the nest as a place of intricately interlaced tunnels carved by the force of ants working diligently together for the greater good. Food and materials must seem to be magically supplied by divine providence. I’d expect such an ant to regard it all as self-evident proof that the universe itself was created solely for the purpose of serving ants? Do ants regard the earth as something they have dominion over? Are ants as self-centered in their view of the universe as we?

I see no objective reason why they are not as justified in such assumptions as are people. The biomass of the world’s ants surely rivals that of humans (seems I’ve read that it exceeds it, in fact). If so, then surely their claim to such a status is as valid as ours. There are, after all, by any kind of individual to individual count, a lot more of them than us, without a doubt. Besides, as I think I’ve mentioned earlier, our automatic dismissal of such speculations as, prima facie, absurd overlooks the simple fact that we know nothing about what thinking and/or self-awareness is. I realize there are many experts that study ant colonies, and possibly even more amateurs, so we probably know some of the answers to some of these questions. The behavioral ones.

But my problem is our insistence on trying to view all behavior from the human experience. Who are we to say that ants, on the very face of it, don’t have anything that can be described as culture? Okay, so what if it couldn’t be anything like what we think of as “culture?” One thing seems pretty sure: if they do have a “culture,” it surely wouldn’t hold ours in very high esteem, either.

There was a big brouhaha recently about the elephants that clearly recognized themselves in a mirror. Some people saw elephants preening at their reflections as surprising proof of pachydermal self-awareness and thought it a revolutionary new insight into epistemology. If there is any new insight into anything here, it is how stubborn humans are in preserving the myth of our speciality. Anyone who has ever looked at another species knows its individuals have their own agendas, completely driven by their self-awareness. That’s true from cats to caterpillars, from one celled animals to Elephants.

The distinctions we make between a human truck driver’s motivations in ferrying food into the city and an ant drone doing the same for his society aren’t justified by any evidence of a difference. They are conclusions we reach solely out of our desire–need, even–to regard our own existence as more meaningful than the ant’s. We simply don’t have the ability to gather the kind of evidence you would need to justify such conclusions.

The distinctions we draw are a matter of faith. Faith that served us so well for so long, as we eked out an existence in a hostile world with only our cleverness as a superior evolutionary tool, but which now encourages us as we proceed to destroy the biosphere. It’s a faith that says we are above the biosphere. We are not. It is time to abandon that kind of faith.

 

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