“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Proverbs 6:6
Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who has died at age 92, is most famous for his contributions to evolutionary biology, but he built his career on ants.
He wrote multiple books on the insects, including a 700-page encyclopedic work in 1990 that has to count as one of the least likely winners of the Pulitzer Prize ever.
Despite his agnosticism and the reductive materialism of his Darwinism, Wilson wrote with a real warmth and soulfulness. Amidst his storied academic career and the controversies kicked up by his theories, it’s worth considering all he did to highlight the miraculous complexity and wonders of life via a lowly bug that is considered a pest when it isn’t ignored altogether.
There are more than 15,000 discovered species of ant, and perhaps another 10,000 yet to be found. Wilson exulted in the dizzying variety – ants that can walk under water to find dead insects, or glide from one branch of a tree to another, or create super-colonies that extend for miles.
If ants are extraordinarily diverse, their social organization makes East Berlin look fun and free by comparison. As Wilson wrote, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” Ants have all the regard for individual dignity of a Mongol chieftain and a power structure out of the Ottoman court.
Pretty much every ant you see doing something is a female. The males are pitiable creatures, good for nothing except their one-time task of trying to inseminate a female.
Among fire ants, would-be queens work together to try to establish a new nest. As soon as they’ve given birth to worker ants, though, the game of thrones begins. The workers seek out and kill all the queens, leaving only the one that is most fecund.
Ant colonies take slaves and fight wars of extinction. Henry David Thoreau wrote of an ant battle he observed at Walden Pond: “They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle cry was ‘Conquer or die.’”
The massive and intricate level of cooperation of an ant colony is something to behold. Mark Twain spoofed an ant’s crazy struggles upon discovering a grasshopper leg, lugging it the opposite way from home before she “gets madder and madder, then presently hoists it into the air and goes tearing away in an entirely new direction.”
In reality, it’s the exact opposite. After finding food, a scout tends to return to her nest in a straight line and then summon reinforcements that follow her path exactly. A species found in North Africa travels some 100 yards from its nest and then invariably finds its way back using cues from the sunlight. A species in the Kenyan rainforest uses the forest’s canopy as a map.
Can ants create their own ark? Check. When water invades a nest of fire ants, the insects unite to create a living raft. They float along, carrying the queen and eggs, larvae, and pupae until they find dry land again.
Can they launch irresistible ground offensives? Yes, of course. One species sends as many as 700,000 ants out in a fan that moves as fast as 20-yards-an-hour. It can be heard approaching and destroys and consumes all in its path on the rainforest floor, from other insects to scorpions and tarantulas, to lizards and birds.
The effect of Wilson’s work on these lowly, yet fascinating, bugs is to create the same sense of marvel that he must have felt when he was an awkward boy first engaged in his amateur naturalism – a feeling that should rightly never be exhausted.
“Our sense of wonder,” Wilson wrote, “grows exponentially: The greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”