Thursday, December 27, 2012

‘Go to the Ant, Thou Sluggard; Consider her Ways and Be Wise’’ Proverbs 6:6

illustration by Phyllis Peacock
by Madeleine Kando

One of my favorite stories as a child was 'The Cricket and the Ant', by Jean de la Fontaine. ** I had to recite the fable in school and to this day I remember every single line, in French.

The cricket was singing all summer while the ant was working to save up food. When winter came the cricket found herself dying of hunger and asked the ant if she would share her food, but the ant said: ‘Well, since you sang all summer, why don’t you dance all winter and let me be?’

There were periods in my life when I identified with the happy-go lucky cricket rather than the ant. I considered myself an 'artiste' with a disdain for the bourgeois goodie-two shoes ant. But as I got older, I came to see the cricket for the fraud that she was and began to look at the ant with different eyes. Obviously the moral of the story was not wasted on me, but because of my bohemian background I still had my reservations.

La Fontaine's ant was hard working and frugal but she was also a scrooge. Even when the cricket offered to pay her back with interest on a short-term loan, the ant refused. La Fontaine wasn't quite honest. He must have known that his ant not only would refuse a short-term loan to a cricket, but in all likelihood would bite off its head and drag it back to the nest to feast on it with her sisters.

On the other hand La Fontaine might not have known that ants are one of the most altruistic species on earth when it comes to their own kind. Had the cricket had the good sense to disguise herself, the ant would have gone to any length to help her, including sacrifice her own life.

Looking at a group of ants scurrying about every which way near a little hole in the ground, you could easily be fooled into thinking that it's one disorganized mess. But ants are a highly organized species that uses chemicals (called pheromones) instead of words to communicate- an advantage when trying to hide from predators that depend on sound to find their prey.

The most amazing thing about ants is their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the group. Most of the ants in a colony are sterile, wingless worker ants who clean the toilets, sweep the floor, regurgitate their own food to give to the larvae and when they are too old to do anything else, are sent out to fight other ants and die a horrible painful death. As E.O. Wilson, the famous biologist says: 'We send our young men to war, ants send their old ladies to war.'

They carry their lot without asking questions. Their motto is: 'You are what you are' and they don't seem to suffer from sibling rivalry or sister envy. Even though their queen can live up to 20 years, they themselves rarely live longer than 90 days.

Drones are winged ants whose only job in their short life is to wait for the nuptial flight, at which time they mate with the queen and promptly die. After the queen has mated, she sheds her wings and builds a new nest to lay her eggs, all this by herself, without eating for weeks on end. She feeds the larvae the food in her stomach until they are mature enough to take over the tasks of finding food, cleaning the nest, rearing the other larvae etc. The queen never leaves her nest again.

Yes, on the surface it looks like ant societies are a caste society. Once a worker, always a worker. Once a queen always a queen. So, is the queen the central component of this hierarchy? Is she the boss, telling everyone else what to do? It turns out that there is no central command, no one is in charge in this micro-world, according to biology Professor Deborah Gordon. It's a bit like the internet with a structure based on feedback mechanisms that tell every ant what to do, when to do it and how to change their behavior as the need arises. When there is a lot of food to be gathered, the forager ants come back with a signal that tells the clean-up ants to put down their brooms and help with the shopping. When there is an intruder, the soldier ants come back with a signal that recruits the garbage collectors into the army to join them in the fight.

In other words, ants are programmed to do certain tasks, but they can adapt their 'nature' to fit the circumstances. 'Nurture' takes over when and if it is necessary. They don't even have to pass a bill through Congress to approve resource allocations because there IS no central command. Smart isn't it? 

Ants are the ultimate groupies. They have taken cooperation and subordination to the group to a new level. They are super-socialists, also known as 'eusocial' (the 'eu' meaning 'true'). According to E.O. Wilson, the biologist also known as the 'Lord of the Ants', in order to qualify as an eusocialist, you have to meet three requirements. You must live in a multi-generational society, practice division of labor and be ready to sacrifice some of your personal interests to the group. Sounds familiar? You guessed it, we are eusocialists too, you, me and every other human being on earth.

The problem is that humans are the product of 'multi-level selection', meaning that our 'individual' self is always in conflict with our 'group' self. We are selfish and altruistic at the same time. On top of it we are cursed with free will. Ants don't have that problem, they don’t have to choose between these two sides of their nature: the bestial and the divine. They don't have free will, or do they? Have they learnt by trial and error that the best way to survive is to submit one to the other?

If I could, I would eat one of Alice's mushrooms and shrink myself to the size of an ant. I would put on my mini-roller blades, just to keep up with the speed at which ants travel and enter their subterranean world equipped with a mini-flashlight and a mini-camera.

Were I to meet an elderly lady-ant with a cane and bifocals, I would offer her a chair and have an honest conversation, senior to senior so to speak. I would try to reason with her not to go out there and die in battle without even looking for alternatives. Did she ever consider sending someone younger and stronger? Wouldn't that be smarter? What about ants' rights? What about education? Couldn't she become a teacher instead? What about free trade amongst ant colonies instead of chopping each other's heads off? But the likelihood that I would have time to ask any of these questions before getting attacked, bitten, dismembered and carried off peicemeal to the nursery as breakfast is extremely small.

Ok, so maybe I won't eat that mushroom after all…leave comment here

** The ant fable was originally written by Aesop. La Fontaine revived these original fables at the time of the rising bourgeoisie, which required a justifying ideology for the onset of capitalism based on entrepreneurship and the work ethic. In ‘The Three Little Pigs’, it is obvious who is the hardworking capitalist and who is looking for a handout. The big bad wolf represents poverty.