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On Ants

Laurent Keller is Professor of Ecology and Evolution, and Head of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, at the University of Lausanne. In 2005 he was awarded the E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award. Elisabeth Gordon is a freelance journalist and writer. Together they wrote,9780199541867 The Lives of Ants, which provides a state-of-the-art look at what we now know about these fascinating creatures, portraying a world that is rich and full of surprises, and still full of unsolved mysteries. In the excerpt below we learn a little bit about ants in human culture.

Since time immemorial, human beings have been fascinated, amazed, intrigued, and captivated by ants.  And yet, at first glance, there is nothing particularly attractive about the tiny creatures.  Unlike butterflies, they don’t have wings with vivid colour patters; they cannot boast the iridescent wing-cases seen on many beetles.  Nor do they produce things which human beings like to eat or wear, such as honey or silk.  They don’t even chirp or sing like crickets or cicadas; and, unlike bees, they never go in for dancing.

They do, however, have other characteristics which, in their way, are much more remarkable.  For one thing, their social arrangements are quite extraordinary, almost unique among living creatures, and have often been compared to human society.  William Morton Wheeler, the founder of American myrmecology, wrote in Ants (1910): ‘The resemblances between men and ants are so very conspicuous that they were noted even by aboriginal thinkers.’  For another thing, ants are not only efficient, they are hard-working and thrifty, qualities which have always seemed like good reasons for seeing them as virtuous role models.

In c. 1000 BC, King Solomon recommended them, in the Old Testament, as models of wisdom: ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest’ (Proverbs 6:6-8).  The same way of seeing them turned up centuries later in La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Cicada and the Ant’.  They are also mentioned in the Koran, which presents them as a highly developed race of beings, and in the Talmud, again as synonymous with honesty and virtue.

The Greeks, too, Aristotle, Plato, and Plutarch, for instance, praised these social insects as wise and clever.  The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder devoted a whole chapter of his Historia naturalis to them, expatiating on their bravery and strength.  He even mentions ants as big as dogs found in India or Ethiopia: they acted as guards outside gold-mines and killed any men who attempted to make off with the precious metal.  These accounts are of course closer to fiction than to fact; but they do attest to the human appeal of ants, as well as to the fears they could engender.  These figments of Antiquity’s imagination show that there was an awareness of how aggressive the insects could be.  But what was uppermost in the ancient world’s appreciation of ants was how they could communicate with one another, devise their division of labour, and construct nests of such architectural complexity – which the natural historian Aelian compared to palatial residences.

The effect of these tiny creatures on human imagination was such that they inspired many a myth and became incorporated into belief systems.  The Dogon peoples of West Africa saw them as the wives of the god Amma and the mothers of the first humans.  They were also central to traditional rituals, for example  among the Wayana-Apalai peoples of Brazil, Surinam, and French Guyana, where a boy reaching puberty had to demonstrate that he was worthy of adult status by wearing a sling full of fire ants round his torso or tied to his back, thus proving he had the courage and endurance to withstand the bites from these very aggressive creatures.

Literature and Film

Nowadays ants have lost their previous importance in legend and ritual, but instead they figure prominently in books and films.  The French writer Bernard Weber, for instance, is widely known for his best-selling Ants trilogy (The Empire of the Ants, The Day of the Ants, and The Revolution of the Ants). Ants now figure in a broad range of popular culture, from many works of science fiction, to novels, children’s books, comics, and video games.

The creatures are also to be found swarming across television and cinema screens, with lead roles in many documentaries or starring in feature films.  Sometimes they are presented as a threat and act out horrific fantasies, as in Gordon Douglas’s Them, a Hollywood film of the 1950s in which mutant ants more than two metres tall spread panic throughout the United States.  Usually, however, they are humanized, endowed with anthropomorphic physiques and behaviours, and as such are presented as more congenial to humankind.  This is how they appear in Antz, directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, and A Bug’s Life by John Lasseter.  Both these animated films, which appeared in 1998, hold up a mirror to our society by having as their central characters human-like ants who feel out of place in a community of conformists, where individuality is undervalued.

The imaginations of old and young alike have been stimulated by such fictional insect worlds; and some have even developed a liking for the real thing.  Toy manufacturers have taken advantage of the vogue for ants and are selling ant aquariums, so to speak, in which water is replaced by a nutritious gel, thus enabling children to have an ant colony of their own.  Household pets were once goldfish and hamsters; now its the turn of ants.

Recent Comments

  1. John Riutta

    This sounds like a very interesting book indeed; just the thing to introduce many non-entomologists to the fascinating world of ants and their natural history. I will make a note of it for a possible article in The Well-read Naturalist.

  2. [...] University Press has just published a book that I think I might buy, On Ants, by Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon. The OUP mentions that “ants are not only efficient, [...]

  3. Robert Roggeveen

    John Riutta is right. This is a very interesting book, and just the thing to introduce many (if not all) non-entomologists to the fascinating world of ants and their natural history. I am no entomologist to be sure – an average general reader. This is a very accessible book that has won a place in my growing library “shelf” for natural history and science. My recommendation – buy this book. If you do not buy it for yourself, suggest your local library buy it. It will very likely enhance most any local library collection.

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