Ants Show Us What We Could Be, Not What We Have to Be

The Liberal Ironist just posted on the coming Ant World War, but wanted to say more about the Argentine ant in particular, and about the use of ants as a social metaphor for humans in general.  Wired ran a brief but fascinating account of the sophistication of ant behavior in war back in August, featuring an interview with ecologist Mark Moffett and some of his outstanding pictures.  People of varying degrees of education sometimes make overly-simplistic metaphors comparing humans to ants, but Argentine ants resemble humans both far more and far less than other ant species.  Moffett’s experiences have shown him both the uses and the limits of the “society as anthill” metaphor.

In the United States, any discussion of the Argentine ant warrants discussion of the supercolony.  This is where this stuff gets interesting: Instead of producing local anthills that die off with the death of their queen, the California Large Colony covers thousands of square miles from the Bay Area to the Mexican border.  You could transplant an Argentine ant of the California Large Colony from San Francisco to San Fernando, and the Argentine ants of the local San Fernando hill will identify her as a friendly, feed her and put her to work.  Queen ants produced within the supercolony stay within it.  It spreads mile by mile underground, with as many supercolony entrances from the surface as convenient simply producing the appearance of separate, unrelated anthills.  If the Argentine ants destroy the fire ants in California, the coastal region there won’t just have only 1 ant species underfoot, but essentially 1 anthill as well.  For other ant species, the death of the queen means the death of the hill; the supercolony allows them to pivot their population, distribute resources, centralize several queens to make breeding safer and more-efficient, and maintain a continuous society.

The ability of this species of ant–a creature that generally won’t associate beyond the level of the anthill–to secure territories of thousands of square miles which they commit to a common purpose is a profound achievement; if you consider what thousands of square miles looks like to an ant–particularly in comparison to the foraging grounds of a single anthill–this achievement looks positively exalted.  For perspective, a 6 foot 1 inch tall individual such as your Liberal Ironist is roughly 608 times as tall as a typical Argentine worker ant is long.

But then there is the absolute hostility of Argentine ants towards all other ant colonies, including those of unrelated Argentine ants.  “Ant wars” are already well-known; some ant species are even known for their social sophistication in taking worker ants of another species as “prisoners” to work for their hill in exchange for continued room and board.  What makes Argentine ants remarkable in this regard is their crudeness: They will swarm and destroy almost any ant from outside the colony that encroaches upon their territory.

These 2 interesting qualities of the Argentine ant–its vast continuous society and its intense hostility towards all unrelated ant colonies and ant species–are the key to its incredible invasive capacity, but this raised a question for biologists that the layperson might overlook: Why are Argentine ants so successful outside of their native habitat, while their population is relatively balanced there?  10 years ago, biologists at the University of California, San Diego, realized that the Argentine ant is as hostile to foreign colonies of Argentine ants as it is to other ant species; there are many different colonies of Argentine ants in their native habitat of northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, but the vast supercolonies spanning wide stretches of several continents each descended from just one of them.  Almost the entire coastal expanse from San Francisco to San Diego is in principle just an extension of a certain colony of Argentine ants in South America; it appears that a similarly-sized New Zealand supercolony is a part of this same colony.  Argentine ants honed their fighting instincts against each other before several ants from one colony each made it out to other continents by sea, and upon getting a foothold in these new continents, their brood destroyed the indigenous inhabitants of the vast, unexplored regions they found.

Do I have to spell it out for you?

But while xenocide is something Argentine ants have to do, genocide is just something human beings might do.  Mark Moffett, writing in The Scientist, issues an excellent caution about overextending the analogy of Argentine ants with humans:

“Supercolonies confound our notions about societies, populations and species like nothing else.  An Argentine ant society is separated socially and reproductively from all other Argentine ants by an intolerance of outsiders.  Their patriotism is so absolute that males are almost always killed if they enter the territory of the next supercolony.  That differs from people, whose cultures, albeit often violent toward each other, have a history of interbreeding that unifies our species. Since there’s almost no reproduction between supercolonies, each society effectively exists in isolation, as genetically separate as lions are from tigers.” (emphasis added)

This is precisely the point, though it isn’t made here in normative terms.  Human beings (in aggregate) do reproduce certain aggregate ant behaviors, but they never do these reflexively.  Variety and a capacity for assimilation are advantageous to our species because we can become cognizant of alternative means of social organization and prepare for them; ants are compelled in their social activities by pheromones, probably as involuntarily as we are in our feelings by certain secretions of our endocrine system.

So it will not do to use the anthill as a metaphor human society, because whether we remain a feudal anthill or form a national supercolony is determined by human practice and our cognition of it, not by our DNA; human “supercolonies,” for that matter, need not attack each other’s members on sight.  If our identities are not, unlike the Argentine ant’s, not just genetic but also cognitive endowments, then we always have alternative means of expressing (or repressing) them.  It is not naive to say that human beings can become what they want to be.  Rather the reverse: Our mundane practices, both individual and in aggregate, put everything that we are and will do at stake.

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One thought on “Ants Show Us What We Could Be, Not What We Have to Be

  1. Pingback: Red vs. Amber: A Non-Human World War | The Liberal Ironist

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