I don’t think we can help it. We are a species given to making comparisons. We like analogies, and metaphors, and some of us (OK, me) anthropomorphize regularly. I have been a vigorous defender of this practice, especially in my book When Elephants Weep. I have claimed that since we share so much of our biology with animals, and we are just one kind of animal after all, there is no reason to suppose that their minds, and their emotions are so different from ours. We learn about their inner lives, by thinking about our inner lives. I still believe this. I would even go so far as to say that we have much to learn about our emotions from other species who appear to be our superior in some regard: elephants may feel grief more profoundly than we do, and dogs certainly have a greater capacity for friendships than we do.
Nonetheless, I find myself bristling when people “apply” the lessons of evolutionary biology to such topics as human rape (as in Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape; but Thornhill is the man to go to for wasp rape). Slavery? The same. In and of itself, ant slavery (first noted by Pierre Huber in 1810) fascinated Darwin and many myrmecologists, from the great William Morton Wheeler down to the present day, and such extraordinary books as David Grimaldi and Michael Engel’s Evolution of the Insects.
But lessons for humans? Hardly. Are we not going to learn most about slavery by reading the history of slavery rather than look at other animals who appear to practice something similar? Which does not mean that our enslaving of animals (see under domestication) is not a topic that can both inform and be informed by the history of slavery, as David Brion Davis shows in his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.
But when it comes to warfare I find myself rebelling against examining war among ants. Why? They certainly do something that appears to resemble war. Mark Moffett in his book Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, has said, “Among animals, all-out war against their fellows occurs only among the largest societies of humans and ants.” While this is true, I suppose that I am beginning to see that an animal, any animal, even an ant, can and should be studied for its own sake, and not as a means of deriving human moral lessons.
I was impressed by the comment by Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford University and one of the leading experts on ants who ends her book Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized by admitting “I have not learned much about people from watching ants…Ants do not offer moral instruction.” Still, I would be very curious to know how many species of ants, among the more than 12,000 that exist, are, actually hyperaggressive, and whether there are not hundreds or even thousands who manage to live in the proximity of other ants in relative peacefulness?
If we are tempted to read into ant wars lessons from humans, it is probably because of the work of E.O. Wilson, and especially his 1975 magnum opus Sociobiology. But we should resist. However you term what ants do, no matter how closely it seems to resemble human war, it is not human war, and any analogy is nothing more than that, merely a metaphor. After all, E.O. Wilson is the greatest myrmecologist on our planet, and he has not managed to convey any wisdom about human war based on his vast knowledge of ant war. He did say, and here I think he is dead wrong, “if some imaginary Martian zoologist visiting earth were to observe man as simply one more species over a very long period of time, he might conclude that we are among the more pacific mammals.”
In his new novel Anthill, Wilson writes “ants are a metaphor for us…Homer might have written equally of ants and men, Zeus has given us the fate of winding down our lives in painful wars, from youth until we perish, each of us. It is an awful thought, very compelling as a literary device, exaggeration for terrible effect. Fortunately it is not true for all humans, and I wonder, too, just how true it is for the majority of ants.
Even if we what we learn from ants bears a striking parallel to a human phenomenon, for example, the “dear enemy phenomenon” where ants have established territorial borders and can even go so far as to establish a strip of land that acts as a limbo between disputed areas of different ant species (Moffett observed this in Argentina between sugar ants and harvester ants), my response is still “so what?” In and of itself, it may be fascinating, but I fail to see how it bears on human events. I could be wrong, however.
My friend the conservation biologist Con Slobodchikoff, who discovered some pretty amazing things about Gunnison prairie dog alarm calls (that they can distinguish different kinds of predators, hawks, dogs and coyotes, and most extraordinary of all, that their calls distinguish between humans who feed them and humans who shoot at them) thinks I am wrong and there is much to learn from Argentine ant colonies in Los Angeles.
While Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler in their magnificent Pulitzer-prize winning volume The Ants, all 732 pages of it, don’t draw human lessons, it surely is instructive to realize that when an ant is introduced by humans, as on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos (it has happened in Hawaii as well and there is the frightening case of the imported red fire ant in the entire southern United States), it can extinguish the populations of every other ant species it encounters, reminding us of nothing so much as the destructive power of colonialism. It could be concluded that supercolonies are bad for everyone, humans included. But what about the recent discovery in Europe of colonies of a single species of ant that stretch for 6,000 kilometers? (Piotr Naskrecki: The Smaller Majority, a book you want to own for the photos alone – remarkable beyond telling).
I have been admonished to stop looking at everything in the natural world as simply a mirror for Homo sapiens. Yet I am writing a book, Apex Predators in which I compare human violence to animal violence, precisely because I believe there are lessons to be learned. I simply cannot abandon the idea that it is significant that while humans have murdered over 200 million of their own in the 20th century alone, orcas have killed exactly zero orcas. There is nothing remotely resembling war among whales. Yes, they fight, but they invariably stop short of murder. We don’t. (An article by Felicity Ann Huntingford in a book on the biological and social bases of aggression and war, is entitled “Animals fight, but do not make war”.) I can’t help but see a lesson there. We don’t have to invent a moral, as in Aesop’s Fables, but surely one reason we love to think about other animals is that we have some hard-wired need to relate what we see to ourselves. Isn’t that the basis, of the entire discipline of Comparative Psychology? On the other hand, there isn’t much about this field that I like (after all Skinner was one, and the ghastly experiments of Harry Harlow belong to the field as well)
So what do I take from all this? Don’t Kill Ants! I could go on about this for another blog, and maybe I will, but for now, I can only say that the more I read about them the less I want to destroy them and the more they seem worthy of my respect. Is this not true of any animal we take the trouble to get to know as individuals? All the great ant researchers agree on this one astonishing point: no two ants are exactly alike. They each have their own personality. I like that.