great ants


For the writers of the Old Testament, ants held a particularly important place as an exemplar for human behaviour: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise”, reads Proverbs 6: 6. Repeatedly, comparisons have been made between human society and the scurrying activity of insect societies. For the pioneer Dutch entomologist Jan Swammerdam (1637–80), viewing ants through his mystical Christian glasses, life in the ant nest was positively idyllic: “love and unanimity, more powerful than punishment or death itself, preside there and all live together in the same manner as the primitive Christians anciently did, who were connected by fraternal love, and had all things in common”. Modern myrmecologists would see things very differently, but their views are probably equally tinged by their surrounding culture. Contemporary scientists argue that behind the superficial cooperation and order of the ant nest lurk powerful conflicting interests between the queen and the workers, an ageist division of labour, and complex behaviours that emerge out of very simple rules. No love, no unanimity, but selfish genes and conflict.

more from the TLS here.