Posted by: GreenMan | January 24, 2011

Truths learned from ants

“We do for self like ants in a colony/organise the wealth into a socialist economy.” Dead Prez, ‘Police State.’

Above is an amazing documentary about ants that really made me think about being a socialist.

The lyric I’ve quoted above originally made me uncomfortable, because my vision of socialism is one in which is the opposite of the stereotypical idea of the individual crushed under the weight of a collective apparatus or overbearing state. To me, socialism means freedom, and that includes the freedom for individuals to develop autonomously in ways that have never been possible before.

It seemed to me that comparing a socialist human society to ants played into the idea that what we want is to convert people into robots, drones on behalf of a hive society. More than that, it’s wrong to project on to animals characteristics of humans and our societies that just aren’t there.

But I now think that looking at the incredible achievements of ants is an argument for socialism in a different way. Of course there’s no way we could, or should want to, use the way ants live as any kind of a model for ourselves. But what the achievements of ants do show profoundly is the power of co-operation and sociality. As Bert Hoelldobler, the ant expert in the documentary, puts it:

“The evolutionary transition from a solitary life to a social life occurred in only 3-5% of all animal species, including our own species, Homo Sapiens. But this minority plays an overwhelmingly dominant role in almost all land habitats.”

Individually ant bodies are incredible in their strength and endurance, as is often demonstrated in the film by the somewhat bizarre tests they endure, such as running on a treadmill or holding on to their surface in a centrifuge. But as they argue in the film:

“Their success lies not in their abilities or strengths as individuals, but in the organisation of their societies.”

Co-operation,the organisation of ants into a society, allows them to achieve incredible things. Their colonies are incredibly complex structures, carefully designed to regulate air flow and temperature. They practice their own form of agriculture, managing fungi and smaller creatures such as aphids. In the film, we see how their combined power allows them to compete with humans and cattle as the dominant form in the South American pampas.

The incredible structure of an ant city

One particularly fascinating part for me was the demonstration, in the lab based artificial nest, of how foraging scout ants communicate the information they’ve found on food sources. As they search, they leave a dotted chemical scent trail behind them for others to follow. Once they find something, they gorge themselves, to fill up their “social stomach”, a part of their bodies where they store food to take back to the colony and share with others to demonstrate what’s out there. On their way back they leave a continuous trail, meaning that the scent is stronger. When they give others a taste of what’s in their social stomach, they will follow the trail themselves, reinforcing it as they go.

The result is what they call in the documentary a “chemical democracy.” No overseer directs the work, there is no management. The ants, by their combined individual efforts, rapidly find the quickest routes to the best food sources. The food sites are chosen collectively by the community on the strength of the chemical trails – like a peer to peer network, it works through co-operation. Ants circulate food through a colony very efficiently – unlike our societies where there are some who eat too much while others go hungry. Their sharing of food allows ants to judge the needs of the colony through how they feel as individuals – if they are hungry it means the whole colony is hungry.

I remember being blown away a couple of years ago to learn (from reading Stephen Jay Gould) that not all social insects had evolved from a common ancestor. In fact sociality in insects has evolved multiple times, and is an example of convergent evolution. When something is an obvious, efficient solution to a problem an organism faces, it can evolve separately several times. Eyes are a great example of this – there are many creatures on Earth that have eyes that evolved them separately, because they are simply the best way to see.

The fact that time and again evolution has driven insects to live together in societies to me demonstrates just how revolutionary a development it is, and just what an advantage it gives to the animals who develop it. The fact that ants are able to construct cities that dominate their surrounding regions and practice agriculture is a testament to that.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should idealise their society – they are capable of engaging in brutal warfare with each other (although, it should be noted, war is also a feat of organisation), and they take the young of their enemies captive to use as slaves (although it’s now been observed that as well slavery ant societies also have slave rebellions.)

One of the most important myrmecologists, E.O. Wilson, who was also one of the founding figures of sociobiology, famously once said: “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it’s just that he had the wrong species.”

Why doesn’t it work in humans? Because we have repro­ductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring. The great success of the social insects is that the success of the indivi­dual genes are invested in the success of the colony as a whole, and especially in the reproduction of the queen, and thus through her the reproduction of new colonies.

This was I think one of the main contributions of the idea of kin-selection. We now understand quite well why most species of social insects have sterile workers, and therefore can have communist-like systems. In which the colony is all, the individu­al is only a part of the colony, and the success of the whole community is what counts far above the success of the individual. The behavior of the individual social insect evolved with refe­rence to what it contributes to the community, whereas the genetic fitness of a human being depends on how well it can individually use the society. We have become insect-like only by extreme contrac­tual arrangements.”

But of course, this image of the evolution of human society ignores how we have achieved what we have as a species. All the continents of Earth were colonised by humans living in small, egalitarian bands that could only do what they did (including incredible feats like crossing the Pacific on rafts to make uninhabited islands human homes) through co-operation. Its just false to see humans as most successful when we selfishly use society and others for the advantage of ourselves and our offspring. It’s also contradicted by looking at the real operation of numerous human societies.

A squad of leafcutters working together

Human development has seen more and more of our collective labour power organised collectively. For much of history that’s been under hierarchical systems of control, directed by rulers, managers and bosses. But the more we do socially, the more we are capable of. When I watched the “chemical democracy” collectively decide on its food sources it reminded me of the vision of the emerging socialism of information outlined in the article in my last post. Decentralised co-operation is a model that has worked for life in so many different contexts, and human society is now on the verge of maximising the advantages to be gained from sociality and co-operation.

But to do that, for the collective intelligence and power of billions of humans to become its own superorganism, obviously requires effective, decentralised means of communication, which are in the process of being developed. But fundamentally we must eradicate inequality, and work collectively to ensure that all humans have what they need for survival. It means rejecting the model of society posited by Wilson above. For us to develop freely and fully as individuals means we change our society so that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.


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