Mankind’s inner ant: why humans swarm together

Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman:

Say you walk into a café. You will be surrounded by strangers but you will not threaten or fight them. This is “one of our species’ most underappreciated accomplishments”. Most other vertebrates would only get their lattes if they recognised everybody in the café; Argentine ants would get a drink as long as everybody smelled the same. Only humans relax among total strangers because that is the way our societies work. On this peculiarity all history is constructed. As Moffett says: “Being comfortable around unfamiliar members of our society gave humans advantages from the get-go and made nations possible.” The human need for such societies shapes all our experience. People may say that the forms that differentiate societies – religious, political, moral, flags, anthems – are irrational, contingent or unreal. And so they are, but without them we are nothing. Humans imagine themselves into the security of their cafés. Moffett quotes the philosopher Ross Poole: “What is important is not so much that everyone imagines the same nation, but that they imagine that they imagine the same nation.”

Like the ants we need markers too, but these alone are not enough. Human societies also need an acceptance of “social control and leadership, along with increasing commitments to specialisations, such as jobs and social groups”. The first contentious implication of this is that, when we move out of our society, we remain always and irrevocably foreigners. In Moffett’s world nobody ever really blends in. From the moment we are born we are bathed in the mores of our society; by adulthood this conferred identity has become an absolute. We may thrive as foreigners but we will always be foreigners. Contemporary believers in fluid identities that float frictionlessly across different societies will find this bleak, even abhorrent. But they should bear in mind the other half of Moffett’s case. The very success of human societies rests on their ability to absorb foreigners. Without that we would still be living in small groups or bands. We are, like the ants, a densely populated species. The ants achieve this by breeding more of themselves; we do it by embracing others.

More here.