The CBS Sunday Morning story, Small wonders: What ants can teach us, left me with the visceral feeling that we’re simply ants with big brains and hands with opposable thumbs. Certainly, this comes close to chapter 56’s This is known as mysterious sameness! Just imagine what ants could do if they had these two assets, big brains and hands. I suppose they would ruin the earth even faster than we are doing.
As civilization and technology advances, we become more specialized in the roles we play in society. This progressive specialization is turning modern society more ant-like in some ways. As we’re not ants, this should create some unique social problems for our species. Oh well, I imagine we’ll adapt eventually. Here are some excerpts that highlight the similarities between ants and humans…
Mark Moffett – biologist, author, photographer and ant-enthusiast almost from birth say, “I learned early, like when I was in diapers, that ants are controlling the world under our feet,” he said. “Down there as an infant I would watch them doing all of these things that were very human-like: building roads, working together to collect food, all kinds of things. Ants do all kinds of things that even primates, like a chimpanzee, don’t have to deal with.”
There are farmers, soldiers, nurses, sanitation specialists, highway construction workers. “You get a variety of different sizes of workers with different shapes. And they’re all built specifically to do certain tasks or jobs. So they are born with this identity,” said Moffett.”
There are actually “suicide bomber” ants. “The ant simply walks up to the enemy and explodes – spraying this toxic yellow glue over itself and everything around it,” Moffett said
With behavior this “human-like,” they must be pretty smart, right?
No, according to Deborah Gordon, professor of biology at Stanford: “Ants are not smart. In fact, if you watch an ant for any length of time, you’re gonna end up wanting to help it, because ants are really very inept.
“But colonies are smart. So what’s amazing about ants is that in the aggregate, all of these inept creatures accomplish amazing feats as colonies,” she said.
And according to Gordon, they do it all without a boss.
“In an ant colony, there’s nobody in charge. There are no bureaucrats. There are no foremen. There are no managers. There is nobody telling anybody what to do,” she said.
So all these survive and thrive together, all without a leader – which can be hard for us humans to understand.
“We put a lot of effort into thinking through how to organize some of the things that we try to do as groups,” said Gordon. “Ants don’t put in any effort at all. They’re pretty messy about it, and it works really well.”
So, if no one is in charge, how DO ants make decisions?
Most ants, it turns out, simply “follow the crowd”; the more ants follow a trail, the stronger the trail’s scent is – and the stronger the trail’s scent is, the more likely ant will follow it.
“Basically if you have enough employees or machines – or ants in a colony – they can all have very specific tasks,” said Lawson. “And that’s how ant society is. And that’s how they evolved jobs over millions of years. It’s come to be that we need a nursing ant; we need a soldier ant.”
“Arguably, humans are too smart for the functioning of the whole society – it pays to be individually stupid,” Moffett laughed. “This is the wisdom of the crowds idea brought to ants. Basically, all those little ants with their mostly ignorant choices, out of all that emerges a smart society.”
Oh my word, we are so ant-like. It is uncanny. Of course, we don’t see ourselves that way. Our species-centric ego impels us to paint a self-portrait commensurate with our highest ideals rather than sober self-understanding. Take, for example, the comment, “So, if no one is in charge, how DO ants make decisions?” (photo:”my dear, what big pincers you have”)
Our belief in free will induces us to think we are more in control than we actually are, and that at least someone knows what they are doing. Looking back at history, I’d say it is just the opposite. Our biology—instinct—is the one really in charge, just as it is in ants. I’ve found that I just can’t remind myself too often of this fact. The yearning (1) to see ‘Superman’ in the mind’s mirror is just that compelling.
Finally, notice how well chapter 71 has humanity pegged: Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. While we’re never going to reach that simple naturalness known to other animals and plants, we can at least take heed, as the first line of chapter 71 advises, To know yet to think that one does not know is best.
(1) This yearning is an inevitable result of the survival instinct’s effect on a large thinking brain. The need to be in control is a primal sense we share with all life, or at least, all life with a developed nervous system. In humans, emotions drive cognition to think up appealing scenarios that agree with that innate emotion, and, voilà we have cultural narratives that offer us the evidence of our special place in creation. In short, we judge ourselves and unsurprisingly come out on top.