by Jovel Queirolo, ’14
“Look to the ant, though sluggard – consider her ways and be wise. Without chief, overseer or ruler, she gathers the harvest in the summer to eat in the winter.” -Proverbs 6:6
For the past month or so, I’ve been spending about three hours a week watching video footage of harvester ants for an ant behavior project I’m working on in the lab of biologist Deborah Gordon. The more time I spend with the ants, the more intrigued I become with the relationships between an individual ant and its colony. Perhaps human activists can learn from harvester ants and their ability to see their lives as a part of the colony’s life. No ant is born or raised to do one specific task. Rather, at any given time, ants do tasks that will benefit the colony and enhance its chance of survival. For example, if there’s a lot of food around, more ants switch into foraging mode to gather food. If a part of the nest is damaged, then more ants switch into nest maintenance mode to repair the nest.
The ants appear to be quite selfless and are able to live in harmony with their fellow ants without any sort of “power ant(s)” orchestrating their work. In Ant Encounters, Stanford Biology Professor Deborah Gordon explains that, “An ant does not perform according to instructions – from some inner program, or from other ants of higher rank. Ants use local information, such as chemical communication, but they do not tell each other what to do… An ant’s behavior depends on both what it perceives in the world around it and on its interactions with other ants.”
What if humans could perform according to local information without telling each other what to do? What if our actions depended on our surroundings and on our interactions with other humans? In a way, we do act based on triggers in our environments and from other humans. The important difference is that ants are so dedicated to the well-being of the colony that they do not actively seek out power. Therefore ants can exist in a society without oppressive power structures. It is built into their code of being not overpower each other. They prove that it is possible for a society to exist without any center of control.
Let’s also consider the Occupy movements. “We are the 99%”— in a way, that is the mantra of the ants. They embrace a “we are the 100%” mentality in order to create a strong, stable society while focusing 100% on the well-being of the entire colony. The Occupy movements are off to a good start – they claim not to have a source of centralized power. I hope Occupy movements remember all of the ants in their organizing. Eleanora Pasotti, author of Political Branding in Cities, says that “The movement will only be successful in persuading and mobilizing as long as viewers and participants see it as a space for ‘common folk… You want outsiders to empathize with participants. That’s the main mechanism of solidarity.”
In fact, every activist has something to learn from the ants and their mastery of solidarity—we don’t have to be in charge to get things done. As proven by the ants, enormous feats are achieved when we’re all on the same page at the same time. The challenge that Occupy activists and all activists face is figuring out how to exist without the types of organizing humans have created perhaps in rejection of nature. I would argue that early thinkers around the world who glorified a human’s ability to reason beyond the capacity of other organisms limit us even today. Our societies raise those with knowledge and expertise on a pedestal. We give people authority based on their experience and ability. But the ants prove to us that these traits are not where real power lies. The small harvester and holds in its tiny body a simple wisdom that surfaces in human history at times of great devastation and progressive change. We are most powerful when we distance ourselves from power and work together as a collective.
This isn’t to say ants are perfect. Their (literal) grassroots organizing isn’t glamorous. Gordon says, “When you watch real ants… you see a lot of bumbling around, a few ants going the wrong way, ants pulling an object in different directions. Yet ants are extraordinarily successful, and colonies do in fact accomplish astonishing feats, building, navigating, bringing resources in, and throwing them out. The achievements of colonies do not arise from the skill and determination of individual ants. The colony isn’t like clockwork, but it is ticking.” There will certainly be some bumbling around for those working on the Occupy movement. But if they stick to the anarchist arthropod framework, no bureaucracy will stand a chance against the will of a selfless collective unless governments and businesses redefine their place in society.
Ants don’t get a raise if they’re the most efficient nest maintainers. To be a business-owner or win elections doesn’t bring ants pride and joy. Must humans have control of our lives, our futures, and each other in order to live fulfilling lives? Or are these notions socially constructed? Or ingrained in our genes? At this university where we apply for leadership positions and are constantly reminded that we will be powerful world leaders and politicians, I hope that discussions of selflessness and social change surface.Ants don’t carefully build up and polish resumes for prestigious jobs. The ant that brings in the most seeds doesn’t get an award or a fellowship or special recognition at graduation. Ants have endured about 130 million years of evolutionary challenges. At about 2 million years with a polluted earth, hunger as the number one health risk, about 13.7 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, and a global human colony that is grossly divided, it may be time to reconsider the privilege of reason and egotism.
Jovel Queirolo is a sophomore from the San Francisco Bay Area hoping to major in Biology with a minor in education. She is interested in the intersections of the sciences and the humanities–particularly the patterns and themes that emerge and reoccur in both. Through reflection, public service, and activism she envisions a world invested in social healing and wellbeing.