The Individualistic Ant

Source: Dino Quinzani/Flickr

I learned a lot about insects this last summer because my son is fascinated by them. We watched documentaries together and paged through books. Once, in a fit of unrealistic ambition, I checked out the pulitzer-prize winning book by E. O. Wilson — entitled, simply The Ants, and approximately the size of a one-story house. We did little more than look at the pictures, though I found an almost Kabalistic calm in reciting the names of the many, many genera and species. I was as awed by the scope of scholarship as I was awed by the mighty conquerors themselves.

Ants, you know, are pretty amazing creatures. They build cities and keep slaves and herd livestock. They adapt to and thrive in practically every environment and will, I am sure, outlive us primates.

And they are eusocial animals, every one of them completely given to the colony. Even the queen is essentially a population generator, so if you imagine an antennaed tyrant presiding over her minions, you’re wrong. The queen ant is a single mom with a million children. Being an ant is no picnic.

I find myself peculiarly envious of this life strategy; this absolutely ego-less society, so harmonious it is called a superorganism, each colony functioning as a single mind and entity. I know, I know. I’m supposed to be horrified, but when you become a naturalist you abandon moral judgments.

Anything I learn about fills my brain with ideas for stories and a desire to read all the existing stories on that topic, and so it was with ants. Somewhere in the brief foray into Myrmecological fiction I came across a wondrous story by Ursula K. Le Guin, which serves as Aesopian fable, as well as a pastiche of anthropology and linguistic scholarship. It feels like an idea that could have been a full-scale novel, a Watership Down style epic. It is a gem, one of many in a brilliant career.

And yet, I find myself scratching my head at the premise. The author (and here, I mean the imagined author within the metafiction of the story, not Le Guin) sees the extremely successful and beneficial organizing principle of her kind to be a kind of villainy, one which she must vainly struggle against.

Is this a parody of dystopian novels, which always show (left, right, or center) a lone egoist chafing against political oppression? Or does Le Guin, like all futurists and fabulists, recoil at the idea of a eusocialism, so offensive to our core values of egoism and individualism?

She’s a good enough writer that I’m not sure, but I feel like there should be a counter-fable for once, showing an ant hill depleted by individualism, each hoarding its seed, cutting off the tunnels from others, shuttling its waste into the next ant’s nook, quite forgetting that their future depends upon one another.

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