Commie Ants at the New York World’s Fair

Posted on May 2, 2013


Leaf-cutter-antsHuman society and the power of co-operation in nature

At the New York World’s Fair in 1964, Stephen Jay Gould encountered an ant farm display in the Hall of Free Enterprise* with the label:

Twenty million years of evolutionary stagnation.  Why?  Because the ant colony is a socialist, totalitarian system.

One is inclined to wonder who in particular was measuring this evolutionary stagnation and what forward-thinking, capitalist insect (presumably not stagnating) the ants were being compared to.

One is also inclined to counter it with a matching mosquito exhibit at the Hall of Comrades further along down the arcade.  Under the mosquito exhibit, the label:

Thousands of years of siphoning the worker’s blood and still merely blood-sucking vermin.

Cheap shot deserves cheap shot, right, comrade?

However, such Ayn Randian targeting of social insects falls rather far from the mark anyway.  The social insects are the most successful of all insects.  In the Amazon rainforest three-quarters of the insects by weight are social insects: ants, termites, bees or wasps.  If you put humanity into one tray and Earth’s ant population into another tray, the biomasses would balance.  We share the planet with perhaps 10 trillion ants, give or take.  Those “commie” insects are really, really successful.

Comparisons between social insects and human society are always going to be fundamentally ludicrous anyway—unless one can point to a human society with one mother and 10,000 or so children.  (Yes, I know there are a lot of human societies with drones.)  But social insects do illustrate clearly the power of co-operation.  Despite free market dogma to the contrary, it’s an instinct for co-operation which has always been the secret of human culture also.

Even as singular beings, there’s a lot to be said for co-operation.  We are in fact composed of billions and billions of co-operating cells, all of which surrender their individuality to the common enterprise which is us.  Even our cells are models of co-operation.  Mitochondria, a type of bacteria which serves as sort of battery for our cells, invaded the cells of our ancestors about seven or eight hundred million years ago and have been living there in co-operation with the rest of the cell ever since.  And human individuals are essentially communities anyway.  The number of cells in our bodies which do not share human DNA outnumber the cells which do.  And if the non-human DNA departed, we’d sicken and die.

Matt Ridley in his book The Origins of Virtue (Human Instincts and the Evolution of Co-operation, Penguin Books, 1996) describes the onion-layered nature of co-operation as found in a beehive, starting at the sub-cellular level:

Genes team up to form chromosomes; chromosomes team up to form genomes; genomes team up to form cells; cells team up to form complex cells; complex cells team up to form bodies; bodies team up to form colonies.  A beehive is a collaborative enterprise on far more levels than first appears.

And humans—rather than Hobbes’ philosophic notion of all-versus-all—naturally gather together into groups for survival, just as our ape ancestors did.  And our most important tool, language, is at the heart of our most important human machine, culture.  Language allows us to co-operate more fully, and to share information within and across cultures and across generations.  Writing makes that sharing wider, and potentially more certain.

And when it comes to information, sharing trumps other kinds of systems for fostering development and growth.  Computer model simulations which emphasized the wide and free sharing of information easily outperformed models where innovators were specifically cultivated, or systems where the intellectual property of innovators was protected by copyrights to theoretically foster innovation.

Culture simply learns fastest when crowd-sourced.

We found proof of that in British Columbia when the government did a study measuring the costs and benefits of public education.  The study found that the government received back $7 in additional tax revenue for every dollar spent on education, because (surprise, surprise) people with more education make more money and pay more taxes.

And this is despite giving most of that education away for free and subsidizing the rest with taxpayer’s money.

Co-operation is not a communist plot.  It is simply a better way to get certain things done.

And it comes naturally, along with all those other human traits, some less palatable, which, wound up, mixed together and set a-going, make sure we are always living in interesting times.

Economic man was always far too simple a model to usefully represent human behaviour.  And Ayn Randian economics only works in novels where the author has the power to contrive the outcome.

* I suspect someone at the Hall of Free Enterprise may have been inspired by the Outer Limits episode Keepers of the Purple Twilight when they came up with this exhibit.


Posted in: politics