Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lessons from Ants

“And real talk, like, seeing these ants and studying them and respecting them, it’s like, man, they’re in their own community too. They’re trying to survive. They love. They fight. They’re telling themselves something. We can’t understand, but one day we will.” Brandon McCartney 

“Go to the ants, you sluggard, learn how to be wise.” A Proverb.

A well-known proverb commends the ants for their prudence, cooperation and industry. These social characteristics of ants are often used in fables and children’s stories as in Aesop’s The Ant and the Grasshopper. No less than Mark Twain wrote about them in his A Tramp Abroad. 

The social nature of ants has also led other famous literati to use them as a commentary on the relationship between society and the individual. Among this genre are American poet Robert Frost’s Departmental and novelist T H White’s The Once and Future King.

More recently, computer-animated cartoons and 3D movies feature these fascinating insects in very entertaining and educational ways. These include Antz, A Bug’s Life, The Ant Bully, The Ant and the Aardvark and Atom Ant. My all-time favourite is Antz which is about Z the worker ant who constantly strives for individuality in a colony of millions. He falls in love with a beautiful female ant at a dance who turns out to be a princess. Because he wants to see her again, he convinces his friend, Weaver, a warrior ant, to switch places with him for a day. This simple exchange leads Z into a wonderful and frightening adventure bigger than anything he ever dreamed possible.

Antz Movie Poster

Scientific studies of ants have also revealed the extraordinary learning behaviour of ants. Animals do learn behaviours by imitation but scientists have observed that ants learn in an interactive manner. Apart from mammals, they may be the only group where interactive teaching has been observed. For instance, a knowledgeable forager species is observed to lead a naïve nest-mate to newly discovered food by the process of tandem running. Knowledge is obtained by the follower through its leading tutor. Apparently the leader is acutely sensitive to the follower’s learning process. It would slow down whenever the follower lags and speed up when the follower gets too close!

Other studies have shown that individual ants may choose nest roles based on their previous experience. In one such study, an entire colony of identical workers was divided into two groups whose outcome in food foraging was controlled. It was an incentive experiment where one group was continually rewarded with food for their efforts while it was ensured that the other failed. It was soon observed that the successful group intensified their foraging attempts while the unsuccessful group ventured out less and less. Over a 30-day period, the successful foragers continued in their role while the others moved to specialize in brood care!


No wonder humans are fascinated by the behaviour of ants. Indeed ants are considered wise because they behave appropriately. Their name in Chinese 蟻 / 蚁 is a combination of the logogram 虫 which means “insect” and 義 / 义 which means “righteous” or “appropriate”. But as wise as they are, it dawned on me recently that they are not wise in every way.

I was golfing the other day when I felt a tiny ant crawling up my leg. I did nothing to threaten it and it could have wisely turned around, minded its own business, and walked away. Instead, it started to bite me. At that point, my reflexes kicked in as I had to deal with it. And, of course, that was the end of it.

There is a lesson here for me. However wise and intelligent I may think I am, I am not as wise as I think. This should lead me to cultivate the virtue of humility because like the poor little ant, I am certainly not wise in every way and it does not take much to make a decision that leads to my own self-destruction.

I am also reminded that I am like an ant in an existential way too. There was this ant that was dragging a leave many times its size across the wooden cross-beam when it encountered a hole in the beam. It appeared to have stopped to consider how to cross it. The solution was simple indeed. The ant simply dragged the leaf across the hole and walked over it. Once it crossed over, it then dragged leaf in the direction it was going. Soon it came to its abode only to find that the leaf was too large to push through the entrance of its nest. After struggling with the leaf for a while, it gave up, left it at the entrance and walked into its nest empty-handed.

I thought to myself, “Isn’t that a parable of human existence? We struggle so hard only to return “home” empty-handed, materially, that is.” Perhaps, there is a another way to live so as not to return “home” empty-handed, if in fact there is a “home” at all, wherever and whatever that is.


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