Of Ants and Us.

Ape Inago on 2017-02-06

“Beneath our feet a war rages.” CC-BY-SA-3.0

Contemplating the nature of Jaglavak.

“I see hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.” ― John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Of Ants

There’s a species of tree dwelling ant where colonies battles each other almost continuously. As food gets scarcer during the dry season, they end up fighting more and more. There comes a point where they fight so much that most of the little hairs on their antennae break. As ant-to-ant communication is done with these little hairs, that’s kind of a problem.

This results in a strange phase change in the warring colonies. All of a sudden they stop fighting because they can’t smell the enemy. They start to intermingle and their colony’s particular scent rubs off. Network effects end up spreading it quickly and the scent ripples thru the hive. No one protests because there are no more ants to smell the small changes. If the ants had words, they’d use fancy ones like “Paradigm Shift”, “Tipping Point”, or “Non-linearity”.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. ― Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck

Strangely for the ants, this shift in their culture coincides with roughly the same timing of the elephants wandering away from their normal foraging patterns. They too are hungry and looking for food. The now super-colony of ants are able to work together to fight off the elephants.

The ants who don’t do this end up losing their tree.

Of Us.

Of course, humans are not ants. We don’t use scents to identify outgroups from ingroups, friend from foe. Our scents exist mostly within our heads, encoded as an emotional affect. We remember being frowned at, seeing angry faces. We remember vividly experiences of shame and hate.

Beyond that, humans have adapted the use of words, memes and socially constructed rituals to distinguish us from each other. Schools, colleges, employer-employee contracts, collective systems of governance, flags, team identities: The language of politics all the way down, spreading the scent of the hive.

Also Us.

There are lies that act as useful fictions and rules of thumb to guide us. There are lies we tell to children to help them understand. There are lies that we tell ourselves to give us hope.

Are there lies we tell to adults to make them cooperate? The imaginary elephant in the room everyone talks about but no one sees?

The elephant becomes a vehicle for narrative wire-heading. A tool used to shape our society's collective thought, invented by the trees under our feet.

How do we tell when to stop lying?

What if we’re trying to fight off some metaphorical elephant that doesn’t exist any more. Perhaps our current ritual constructions are meant for a different time. As technology outpaces our sacred tenants we live by and our communication systems lower the costs to attack each other with words, group signaling reaches a fever pitch. The systems we once used to great effect are starting to break down. More ants are dying faster than we can learn their scent.

Or as Einstein said on science & technology: “we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it”

So, what if the elephant doesn’t exist?

The hard part is recognizing how these old ritual structures may still be useful for survival. Transitioning out of them isn’t something we can do lightly. Most ants develop in a symbiosis with their environment. These complex cycles of plants and other organisms evolve in parallel and quickly become interdependent.

I think the real problem is that, even though the elephants may have moved on to greener pasture, the tree’s we’ve built to live on are starving us anyway. Ants need to learn to live without the tree’s support. Like the ant’s tree, our current institutional structures have created an artificial moat around us — we are dependent on the tree and are at it’s whims.

Disrupting the current ecosystem would send ripple effects thru populations and hurt a lot of people. When states collapse, people are left without the means to support themselves. The better we are able to support ourselves, the more we can live like the species who’ve developed sovereignty from their tree overlords.

Ants, when taken out of their natural habitat, act the same way as humans. Take a colony and transplant it to a new environment, and they either die off, become invasive and destructive like fire ants, or find a balance and a niche like how sidewalk ants were able to naturalize. We are not ants, subject to simple instinctual patterns. While our ideas and technology may have outpaced our environment — we can rewire our operating systems. I believe we can recreate the reciprocal systems that our natural environment doesn’t provide.

The good news is that most of the little fights we’re having are with words alone and don’t result in the large scale destruction of the past. But what I am worried about are black-swan situations and the disconnect within our rapidly changing information landscapes. The fear is that as our systems get further out of touch with the new realities, these little word-fights might erupt into something more destructive.

This worry is why I’m looking at ants and other systems of cooperation to try and see if there are parallels that we could use. Because: as far as I can tell, we are mere ants in a colony.

“Lennie said quietly, “It ain’t no lie. We’re gonna do it. Gonna get a little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’.” ― Of Mice and Men