Ant civilization in The Superorganism.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 1 2008 10:44 AM

Of Ants and Men

Compare the two civilizations, and who wins?

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson.

If you took a planet and a handful of genes, you could pose some great questions about human nature and then run experiments to answer them. Instead of asking how much altruism, cooperation, creativity, or any other human trait is hard-wired, you could adjust the wiring yourself. First, you would work out how tightly behaviors and abilities could be programmed into the genome. Then you would create many societies with starkly different predispositions and compare their progress. In one country, you might have a population with genetic sex differences that are so profound that males and females are different social castes. In another, you might loosen genetic control over sexual traits and liberate behavior from sexual identity; an elastic gender gap would prevail, and citizens would be highly responsive to cultural influences. How do the two fare? You could build a group whose social classes have a biological basis, with extreme physical and cognitive/mental differences between socioeconomic levels, and contrast them with a group that is much more physically homogenous. Who is happiest? Or create a highly aggressive, individualistic band of humans and pit them against superefficient drones who are biologically incapable of internecine conflict. Which civilization is more robust? Which colonizes other lands? Who lasts longest?

In lieu of another planet, consider the ant. In an advanced ant city, thousands of individuals work closely together to create a functioning colony in which there is a balance of cooperation and conflict. Some ant societies feature spectacular architecture and climate control. The most remarkable ant species have agriculture: They farm fungus and even domesticate other insects as livestock. In fact, at its height, ant civilization is remarkably like ours. A key contrast is that their society emerges from the hard-wired decision-making of thousands of efficient little biological robots, whereas ours is, at least partly, conscious and intentional. Despite this seemingly massive difference, it appears you can go a long way without a mind.

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In The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson survey the last 15 years of myrmecological research. Picking up where their Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants left off, The Superorganism is a completely wonderful book. It is packed with astonishing findings and beautiful illustrations, and, happily, it also contains enough information about ant civilization to set up a few ants-vs.-humans scenarios. Let us skip lightly over the fact that to compare ants and humans is to pit thousands of species against just one. Rather, let's start with the idea that we begin the contest evenly matched—at 6.6 billion humans and approximately 5 million billion ants, humans and ants have roughly the same biomass. What if a global disaster struck? Who would come out on top?

We won't be able to declare one species smarter or better—each is wildly successful in its own niche, and at any rate, that would make as much sense as saying one is better-looking than the other. Still, we can wonder about how robust life is at such extreme ends of the genes-mind spectrum. What if, for example, you hammered the Earth with a volcano or a big rock from space? Who would survive? Or think about that classic of speculative fiction—mass sterility. Imagine that both ants' and humans' biological clocks sputter and stop, and reproduction just doesn't work as it used to. Is life as we know it over? Perhaps a mysterious plague has moved unnoticed among us until one morning we awake and 70 percent of both populations has disappeared? Could civilization recover? Either one?

Ants in general have been around for more than 100 million years, and the most socially sophisticated species evolved 8 million to 12 million years ago. In that whole time span, the Earth has suffered many explosive events. The worst occurred 65 million years ago, when a meteor strike caused the end not just of the dinosaurs but of 75 percent of all species at the time. In terms of immediate global catastrophe and drastic long-term climate change, the next-most-awful event was a volcanic eruption 27 million years ago in what is now southwestern Colorado. As far as modern humans are concerned, two more important blasts occurred: a volcanic eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago and an exploding comet above North America 12,500 years ago that set the entire continent on fire. The Indonesian eruption almost wiped out the human species, and the meteor may have decimated the humans who lived on the continent at the time. Still, nothing on the scale of any of these explosions has occurred in the last 10,000 years as modern human civilization has gotten up and running. Essentially, we remain untested, while ants from the most primitive to the most social have survived all events. By default, ants must be declared the winner.

How have they coped with all the apocalyptic broiling? Ants are remarkably physically resilient. They live in virtually any habitat possible, and they can withstand radioactivity that would kill humans instantly. It must also help that they live mostly underground. They can easily retreat if the outside world gets too hot. Most importantly, ants are untroubled by the sophisticated decision-making apparatus that humans have. In the case of many ant species, the individual ant is going to make and remake the same small set of decisions every day, whether that day is the same as the one before or that day is the day a supervolcano erupts. Because of this, ants also deal efficiently with problems that might haunt us: If they stumble across a dead nest-mate, their first response is to pick the body up, take it outside, and literally throw it on the garbage heap.

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