Lessons From Ants

Moebius Strip I I

Moebius Strip I I
MC Escher

Humans are social animals with social rules governed by a malleable culture. Obedience to norms and rules is optional. People who think they have the best rules spend their time trying to convince others to follow their rules. Animals, including insects, have often been used to teach moral lessons to human society. Social insects, such as ants are lauded for the relentless hard work, their foresight for storing food to survive winter, obeying their “ruler” and their cooperative spirit. However, comprehensive study of ants finds these character traits are not as true as popularly believed. Lectures by scientists often result in fingers in ears and people clinging to beliefs. Comedians may have more success, but not much. Leave it to American humorist Mark Twain to try to disabuse people of false notions about insects. In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain writes:

Science has recently discovered that the ant does not lay up anything for winter use. This will knock him out of literature, to some extent. He does not work, except when people are looking, and only then when the observer has a green, naturalistic look, and seems to be taking notes. This amounts to deception, and will injure him for the Sunday schools. He has not judgment enough to know what is good to eat from what isn’t. This amounts to ignorance, and will impair the world’s respect for him. He cannot stroll around a stump and find his way home again. This amounts to idiocy, and once the damaging fact is established, thoughtful people will cease to look up to him, the sentimental will cease to fondle him. His vaunted industry is but a vanity and of no effect, since he never gets home with anything he starts with. This disposes of the last remnant of his reputation and wholly destroys his main usefulness as a moral agent, since it will make the sluggard hesitate to go to him any more. It is strange beyond comprehension, that so manifest a humbug as the ant has been able to fool so many nations and keep it up so many ages without being found out.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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One Response to Lessons From Ants

  1. Pingback: Lessons From Ants – Entomo Planet

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