Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Insects Teach Us about Ourselves

drawings by marguerita

Scale Models?


Director, Highlands Biological Station and H. F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology
Department of Biology
132 Natural Science Building
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, NC 28723

ONE BRIGHT sunny day in 1846, Henry David Thoreau hap-

pened upon a savage battle. The unfolding butchery didn’t

disturb the peace of rural Concord, however, for the conflict

was noiselessly conducted by ants just a stone’s throw from his cabin.

“The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my

woodyard,” Thoreau reports, “and the ground was already strewn with

the dead and dying.” This was internecine war, Dresden or Austerlitz

in miniature, “the red republicans on the one hand, and the black

imperialists on the other.” Musing on the considerable myrmecine car-

nage before him, Thoreau comments, “I was myself excited somewhat

even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the dif-

ference.” And therein lies a lesson for humanity, which is why these

astute observations from Walden were often reprinted as an essay in

their own right under the title “Battle of the Ants.”

As he was a keen observer and critic of nineteenth-century America

and one of the most eloquent philosophers of the relationship between

nature and human society, it is unsurprising that Thoreau should join

in a long tradition of observers who have seen parallels between insect

and human societies. A great many social thinkers of the past would

concur with him—the more you think of it, the less the difference—

which is why it is not coincidental that these insect colonies have come

to be called “societies” by entomologists to begin with. But, interest-

ingly, the society that is seen often bears an uncanny resemblance to

that of the social organism peering.

What do people see when they view insect societies? Besides repul-

sion or fascination, what sense do they make of teeming masses of

incessantly-probing ants, swarms of armed-and-dangerous hornets, or

legions of termites marching under cover of darkness? These are the

non-entomologists alike—ubiquitous, abundant, conspicuous groups

that are forces to be reckoned with. No mere masses of bugs, these col-

onies seem to be highly integrated functional units whose members

communicate, cooperate, and coordinate their efforts at such readily-

appreciated activities as defending their group, finding food, building

homes, and caring for their young much as do people.

People have long looked to the natural world for guidance and

instruction, seeking analogy, metaphor, and messages in all quarters of

the animate and inanimate worlds. It was thus inevitable, perhaps, that

these remarkable insects should have insinuated themselves into our

lore, legend, and very conceptions of ourselves as social beings. The

nineteenth-century Natural Theology tradition of seeking sermons in

stones captures the essence of the human tendency to find meaning in

nature. But what sort of meaning? Typically, meaning for a particular

philosophy of life, for how people should live. The noted myrmecolo-

gist C. P. Haskins asks, in his 1939 book Of Ants and Men, “Can we

as we gaze at the ant colony, discern any social pitfalls which menace

[ants and humans] alike, into which ants, perhaps, have fallen more

deeply than men . . . ?” (p. 5).

History suggests that any attempts to draw parallels between

humans and other organisms, and most especially attempts to moralize

from nature, are doomed to failure or worse. There is no shortage of

misguided social policies and doctrines in our century alone, born of a

woeful ignorance or selective reading of “nature.” It is precisely for

this reason that it is instructive to consider what sense has been made

of social insects, and the ways in which these organisms have provided

grist for the mills of social engineers, commentators, and poets since

time immemorial. Protagoras said that man is the measure of all

things, arguing that human knowledge is relative to the observer. This

relativity is starkly evident when the observer is projected onto the

observed, and when it comes to insectan societies humans are indeed

the measure, using themselves as the meter stick. Consider the follow-

ing sampling of social insects as model and metaphor, exploring how

remarkably divergent social views are seen written upon the same hives

and anthills.

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