Working Only for the Good of the Colony.
What if Humans Worked Together Like Ants?
A few years ago I was chatting with my former neighbor over a short chain-link fence that marked the boundary between our two properties. I don’t remember what we were talking about. Most likely safe Midwestern pleasantries about the weather. Somewhere in our conversation my elderly neighbor looked down in disgust at a stream of ants going about their determined ant lives. The ant goings-on were happening within the no man’s land zone of the chain-link fence. On my side of the fence was a garden. My neighbor had a lawn. Under the fence was bare earth, numerous ant mounds, and ants. Upon noticing ant busytown, my affable neighbor quickly excused himself and walked off to his backyard shed. He soon returned with a spray can and, for no discernable reason, began blasting the antopolis while continuing our neighborly conversation. The ants frenzied, then slowed to their deaths. I was aghast. But I said nothing. Nothing. I did not want to upset my neighborly neighborliness with my neighbor.
I often think about this encounter. I wonder why my neighbor was so triggered by the presence of ants. I figure he was perhaps 30 years older than me—born sometime in the 1930s. The 1930s. An era in which relative abundance still existed and insects seemed expendable. So much has changed on our planet since my former neighbor was a young boy. Humans numbered 2 billion in 1930 and carbon levels in the atmosphere hovered around 300 parts per million (ppm). Today, nearly 8 billion humans consume Earth’s natural resources. And in June of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide—as measured at its Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory—reached its highest monthly average ever recorded at 419 ppm.
But, back to ants.
Famed ant researcher, E.O. Wilson (of whom I will frequently quote in this newsletter as he is the doyen of ant research), estimates there may be as many as 10 thousand trillion ants on Earth. It’s believed that ants have been here for some 150 million years, doing their ant thing and bothering dinosaurs well before they annoyed my neighbor. The ants in my Midwestern neighborhood sometimes get into the house and into the sugar jar and haul off scraps from the kitchen floor in a stunningly efficient manner. Some ants, like carpenter ants—who do excellent work as forest decomposers of dead wood and can do that same handiwork excavating other dead wood, aka lumber—don’t mix well in the presence of humans. But the benign wing-free ants that day beneath the chain-link fence were nowhere near the pantry, nor interested in carpentry. Regardless, these ant masses triggered an instinctive response in my neighbor. Their very presence seemed to indicate they should be terminated. Because that’s what we often kneejerk do with ants.
Wildlife abundance. What a foreign concept now that at I am paying attention. We humans have a knack for turning what was once common into the uncommon. It’s estimated that in the late 1800s there were nearly 140 million breeding adult passenger pigeons in the United States. In their taken-for-granted numbers, it was commonly noted that when migrating in massive flocks they blocked the sun and turned daylight to darkness. There were so many passenger pigeons. But by 1914 they had been hunted to extinction: The last one died at the Cincinnati Zoo that year. We just about did the same to bison in the U.S., whacking that population from 50 million to a couple hundred in the late 1800s.
But, back to ants.
Despite humans’ planet-tinkering, ants are still common. They are ecosystem-necessary. As E.O. Wilson (who coined the term “biodiversity”) has noted, “In many environments, take away the ants and there would be partial collapses in many of the land ecosystems.” In contrast to the ubiquitous ant, recent foreboding headlines about the collapse of insect populations, “insect Armageddon,” and “insect Apocalypse” (nb: no insects, no humans), warn that much of the insect world is disappearing due to factors such as climate change, habitat loss, and the overuse of pesticides. Shelves filled with ways to kill insects at my local garden center make me think we are living in a make-believe world of insect abundance. The insect-killing business is abuzz with economic life.
But, back to ants. And E.O. Wilson.
I’ve stuffed this week’s newsletter full of E.O. Wilson quotes and thoughts because, while Wilson is well known for his breakthrough discoveries on ant behavior, he has also widely published his thoughts about human nature and the parallels he believes exist between ants and humans. Ants are genetically predisposed to work only for the good of the colony. Humans, Wilson believes, evolved at both the individual and group level which he calls “multilevel evolution.” This evolutionary legacy has “bequeathed to us our perplexing double nature. We are on the one hand engaged in an individual struggle for survival in which the best adapted will survive. But we are at the same time genetically predisposed to sharing and cooperating. Hence our divided selves.”
Wilson believes the human species is at a crossroads. “Humans have a huge capacity for destruction but also an incredible capacity for cooperation.” What path we choose, destroy our home or save it, is of course up to us. He’s convinced that our salvation lies in embracing and saving our wild environments. After all, our species, except for very recent history, has always lived in the wild. The natural world resides in our DNA. Now 92 years old, Wilson devotes his time to the Half-Earth Project, a non-profit that “is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” He is also involved in the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Destroyed by civil war, the Gorongosa restoration success story gives Wilson hopeful evidence of the resiliency of nature and its ability to be resuscitated.
For half-earth to succeed, it seems we need to start working together like ants in order to save our home. If we fail, it’s very likely that ants will long outlive us—their cooperative ways proving the route to survival.
Thank you to Dan Piraro for permission to use this image.