Ant Behavior: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Ant Behavior: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

We've all heard the same lament from our parents. Why can't you be more like your brother? Why don't you get straight A's like your sister? Now imagine your father as a scientist studying ants every day for a living. You have no sense of community- why can't you be more like the ants? (It's got a certain sting to it, doesn't it? Sorry, bad pun intended.)

Bert Holldobler, a "bug scientist" from Germany recently sat down with the New York Times to discuss  his recent book, "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies" and his earlier book, "The Ants". The way Professor Holldobler describes bugs sounds a lot more similar to the way Marx and Engels described the proletariat than to anything you would have heard on the Animal Kingdom as a kid.

Professor Holldobler suggests that humans should respect the divisions of labor that arise naturally in society much as the same way an ant colony is allowed to flourish and grow as a result of their own labor divisions. For example, we should afford the same respect to a master carpenter as we do to an academic because "Each part done in humans with expertise and done well has the same value." (He does not, however, believe in granting everyone the same wages, which is fair enough because as far as I know, ants aren't given much in terms of wages either.)

However, not all is so "humane" (for lack of a better term) in the ant world. Professor Holldobler is now conducting research into what he terms ant slavery, which is the subjugation of the weaker ant group by another. "When the weak group is overrun, the stronger ones capture their pupae and larvae and take them to their own nest. These stolen immature individuals eventually hatch to become workers in the foreign colony. Their lifetime of labor then benefits the raiding group." So much for Marx, as that sounds pretty diabolical. What if we conquered our enemies in the same manner? Not only will we conquer you, we will steal your babies.

Professor Holldobler credits his lifelong fascination with ants and insects to his early childhood in Germany when he never grew out of his "bug phase". Instead of spending his time gossiping about the neighborhood, he spent it gossiping about ants and insects, which was considered just as bad by his childhood community, but seems to have served him more than adequately in his successful career.