We like to draw parallels between ourselves and animals, perhaps because it makes us feel less alone. Is this dangerous?
There are many articles and papers being written today about the benefits of emulating ants in the workplace, and no doubt some of them have merit. We may recall one of Aesop’s fables in which a workaholic ant is praised over the grasshopper who spends all his time singing and dancing. But does all of this interest in ants really help us understand humans? Can we empathize with another species so vastly different from us or are we merely projecting our own prejudices?
Let’s consider three traits of ants and try to apply them to humans.
First of all, ants are born into a particular job. The queen, who cannot even feed herself, lays all of the eggs, fertilized by a male consort who subsequently dies. Upon his arrival at the colony, worker ants first try to kill him, then merely tear his wings off so he can get to the interior chamber where the queen lays. The largest of the workers are the soldiers, who protect the colony and often have stingers as well as strong mandibles. These are the ants we most often come in contact with. There are others: foragers, builders, nursery workers, and those that distribute food in the colony. Each type has a slightly different physiognomy and doesn’t perform duties outside of their job. There are no polymaths and no one is actually in control.
Human instincts and purposes have been altered by the development of society. The need to survive is muted: we don’t need to raise our own food, make our own clothes or build our own houses. We are however, easily manipulated by those who would sell us those things, especially if we do not possess an idea of their value. Money and the pursuit of it, as well as many of the jobs we find ourselves doing, are human inventions rather than natural stimuli. They were created by an inborn behavior, competition, which makes the selflessness of the common ant impossible in the average human. On the positive side, the human spirit seems to have a deep desire for self-determination, which remains alive and kicking even under the worst of situations.
For ants, vision is the least developed and least useful sense. Ants don’t rely much on their very limited compound eyes, which produce very low resolution images, but instead use highly advanced pheromones that tell them where to go and what is going on. Eyes aren’t all that useful under the soil, but being able to locate foraging trails and sense danger by smelling these chemical flags is vital. Their antennae are their chief sensory organs, used not only to smell, but to taste, touch and hear.
Humans are visual creatures. What we see is extremely important not only to our physical movement and well-being, but to our imagination. Visual thinking activates the part of the brain that is emotional and creative and helps us put things together in intuitive and unusual ways. Humans are apt to daydream and be distracted like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable, but those daydreams are part of the way our mind works. We can never truly be the ant, working tirelessly and constantly, and when we approach that goal, our productivity is actually reduced as our sanity wanes. Our lives require singing and dancing as much as they require purpose, and sometimes that purpose is singing and dancing.
Ants collaborate constantly. There seems to be a collective mind that builds a colony, an architect that shapes their home, a drive inside each ant that helps them fall into step with the foraging team. This is impressive.
When people work together we can achieve greater things than when we work apart, but I would question the notion that our collaboration can or should be comparable to that of an ant colony. It may be that ants are so small to us that we cannot see their individuality, but the apparent lack of it is disturbing when applied to humans. Humans have a variety of individual goals and motivations, that sometimes conflict and sometimes come together to create powerful waves through society. If there is a collective human mind, it must be that which Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, which is not readily available to us, except perhaps in dreams. It is consciousness itself, with all of its distractions, that ultimately makes us unable to labor together like the ants. The unique strength of the human being lies in the ability to interpret things and draw individual abstract conclusions. If we give this up to better fit in with the “colony”– be it the state, the corporation, or the place of worship– are we becoming less human?