Deborah M. Gordon in the Boston Review:
It is easy to imagine that the lives of the ants resemble our own. An ant might feel, as people sometimes do, lost in the crowd. If you look at a city from far away, you see a hive of activity: people going back and forth from home to job and collecting packages of food and things produced by other people, things to be stored in their chambers or turned into garbage taken away by other people. Each person is a tiny speck in the flow of a system that no one has much power to change.
Our fascination with ants has led to engaging stories about them, from the Iliad’s Myrmidons to Antz’s Z, as well as a growing body of research by biologists. Though the ant colonies of fable and film often are invested with the hierarchical organization characteristic of human societies, a real ant colony operates without direction or management. New research is showing us how ant colonies get things done without anyone being in charge. Ants, it turns out, have much to teach us about the decentralized networks that operate in many biological systems, in which local interactions produce global behavior, without the guidance of any central intelligence or authority.
Many of our stories about ants concern how hard they work and how they are reconciled to the anomie of life as a pawn in a larger system. Sometimes we imagine that the ants like it that way. Proverbs 6:6 admonishes the sluggard to emulate the hard-working ants. In Aesop’s fables, the ants show perseverance and foresight. Homer’s Iliad tells of a race of myrmidons, ants transformed by Zeus into selfless human soldiers. T. H. White, writing during the Cold War, sent the young King Arthur into an ant colony that is a totalitarian hell, with microphones blaring commands.