Today's Guest Author: Rev. Gary Kowalski
Gary Kowalski is the author of books on nature, history and spirituality, including The Souls of Animals and Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom For Anyone who Has Ever Lost A Pet" (both from New World Library); Blessings of the Animals: Celebrating Our Kinship With All Creation, Science and the Search for God and The Bible According to Noah (all from Lantern Books);Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (BlueBridge Publishing); and Earth Day: An Alphabet Book (Skinner House). His author's website iswww.kowalskibooks.com.
Reverend Kowalski is interim minister at the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist. Visit his blog on faith, politics and current affairs.
What does it mean to assert that every creature has inherent worth and dignity? Drawing on the Biblical proverb to "observe the ant and be wise," this essay suggests that even seemingly mindless animals may hold unsuspected dimensions of complexity and creativity. Moving beyond a mechanistic view of life opens our minds to wonder and our hearts to celebration of the infinite within the small.
Go to the Ant
When my children were young, they humored me one Father’s Day with a hike up Hunger Mountain, a peak in central Vermont. As we sat resting by a stream on the descent, we turned over a log to look for salamanders. But the chunk of birch I chose to lift fell to pieces in my hand. The inside had been chewed away and hollowed out by ants, thousands in that one length of windfall timber. I realized that the forest floor must be teeming with them, tunneling unseen and mostly unappreciated.
Ants are everywhere. The smallest ones swarm in the interstices between particles of soil, with over 14,000 identified species filling every available ecological niche. Collectively, the family of Formicidae outweighs the human population of the planet, and ants and termites together account for up to thirty percent of the world’s animal biomass. Specimens in amber have been discovered that are 92 million years old, from the Cretaceous period. While the dinosaurs of that era have long since disappeared, ants have survived and colonized every continent except Antarctica.
It matters what we think of these tiny creatures. Perhaps most of us don’t think of them at all, except as nuisances on picnics. Yet ants are one of life’s oldest and most successful experiments, and how people view these pismires is a measure of how they regard animals in general. Ants represent the living world in its most typical and primordial form.
Historically, attitudes toward insects have passed through three stages: the mythical, the moralizing, and the mechanistic.
Indigenous, oral cultures made no firm distinction between the realm of waking and dream (or between heaven and earth, which the shaman could traverse in modes of ecstatic insight). Neither was there any clear boundary between human and animal. Insects played a role in the sacred legends of many native people. The Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest say that their ancestors lived in a subterranean world before the beginning and that it was the ant people who built a ladder, on which humans could climb into the land of sunlight. The Kabyl people of North Africa likewise say it was an ant who led the first man and woman from the subterranean regions to the earth’s surface and taught them the necessary arts, how to bathe and wash their garments, how to grind corn and knead it into dough, and how to make fire with flint and tinder for cooking. For the mythical thinker, the life force (which anthropologists who study animistic cultures often call mana) seemed widely dispersed within the cosmic order and might be shared by inanimate features like rocks and hills, as well as by other living beings. Spiritual qualities were not the exclusive preserve of any single species.
Things changed with the rise of written scriptures, particularly in the monotheistic West. Philosophy and didactic discourse gained ascendance over imagistic and associational habits of thought, as people tried to interpret the diverse phenomena of the natural world as manifestations of a single, overarching moral order.
In Hebrew tradition, this tendency is exemplified in the “wisdom literature” of the Bible—Job, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Proverbs—the latter attributed to Solomon, who supposedly gained his reputation for both wealth and discernment from a diminutive source:
Go to the ant, you lazybones;
Consider its ways, and be wise,
Without having any chief
Or officer or ruler
It prepares its food in summer,
And gathers its sustenance in harvest (Proverbs 6:6–8)
In Islamic lore, Solomon’s ant was one of the few animals granted entrance to paradise. While insects might not be deities in their own right, they could still be exemplars for human conduct.
In Greece, Aesop (c. 620–560 BCE) drew lessons from the ant and grasshopper to illustrate the results of prudence and improvidence. As a slave, Aesop may have found it convenient to use animals as allegories for human foibles, without the risk of directly offending those in power. But the allegories would not have been effective unless people believed that ants really did symbolize industry and thrift. Such fables, along with bestiaries and riddles, continued to be written into medieval times, like this one from the early Middle Ages:
I am foresighted about my life. Not a sluggard when it comes to hard work, I carry on my shoulders the reward of a carefree winter. I do not heave great loads all at once, but I heap up many loads one at a time.
To the moralizing imagination, all creatures served a purpose—if not as good examples, then as dire warnings—where even the smallest details were the creations of a supremely ethical Designer.
The French philosopher René Descartes introduced a new paradigm for thinking about animals. He considered them automata, and this mechanistic outlook dominated biology in its early days. The pioneering entomologist Henri Fabre, for example, documented the apparently inflexible, unthinking behavior of ants and other insects. In his text on Mason bees, the Frenchman recorded observing columns of red ants searching the countryside for other anthills to raid, capturing nymphs to take back as slaves to their own subterranean fortress. The routes chosen for these raids were diverse: “Bare ground, thick grass, a heap of dead leaves or stones, brickwork, a clump of shrubs: all are crossed without any marked preference for one sort of road rather than another.” What never varied was the path home; even if the experimenter placed obstacles in the way, or washed away the track with water, the myrmidons rigidly retraced their original itinerary in reverse.
Laden with their plunder, the Red Ants return to the nest by the same road, often an exceedingly complicated one, which the exigencies of the chase compelled them to take originally. They repass each spot which they passed at first; and this is to them a matter of such imperative necessity that no additional fatigue nor even the gravest danger can make them alter the track.
Such regimented maneuvers prompted Fabre to ask of the insect brain, “Has it faculties akin to ours, has it the power of thought? Are they able to connect a ‘because’ with a ‘why’ and afterwards to regulate their behaviour accordingly? Are they able to change their line of conduct when faced with an emergency?” He answered, “I see nothing in it all but an invincible persistence in the act once begun. The cogs have gripped; and the rest of the wheels must follow.” With their clattering exoskeletons, insects even look like robots, an impression reinforced by their stereotyped actions.
Yet the whole is often more than the sum of its parts, and for this reason mechanical models have their limits. Termites in small groups, for example, may appear to move in random and chaotic fashion, but increase the numbers and patterns appear within the milling. A colony begins to form, self-organizing. Properties emerge that were not present or predictable before. One can claim that the insects are programmed by their DNA, but an equally strong argument can be made that termites’ genetic material has evolved to serve the complex requirements of the collective, selected and governed by the wisdom of the hive.
Deborah Gordon, who studies ants at Stanford, explains how individuals change jobs in her book Ants at Work. An insect working in housekeeping or the nursery one day may switch to patrolling or foraging the next. Have patrollers found a cache of tasty seeds? More laborers are needed immediately to bring home the harvest! But who gives the order to mobilize? The answer is, no one. If the bounty is nearby, the patrollers will return to the hive more quickly, at a higher rate, and that stimulates ants occupied in other duties to stop whatever they’re doing and join in gathering food. No head of personnel decides that it’s a good day to forage, yet through “swarm intelligence” the work gets done. Gordon muses, “A colony is analogous to a brain where there are lots of neurons, each of which can only do something very simple, but together the whole brain can think.” Giant colonies can comprise up to eight million insects, communicating with dozens of pheromones, as well as through touch and sight, forming the equivalent to a complex nervous system.
Though it sounds slightly mystical, swarm intelligence has practical applications, from powering search engines to streamlining traffic flow. Southwest Airlines has used ant-inspired algorithms to make more efficient use of aircraft as planes arrive early and late. In Europe, phone companies are increasing the efficiency of their networks by programming calls to leave virtual pheromones at switching stations, like ants leaving signals for their hive mates. The paradox is that one insect may be clueless, but millions together can be adaptive, flexible, and smart.
A more holistic perspective may be replacing our earlier assessment of these creatures. The moralizing mentality of Solomon and Aesop is quaint but no longer tenable. Ants should not be praised for their industry or frugality, any more than they should be condemned for waging war. The mythical mode of thought is likewise becoming harder to sustain; the “ant people” diverged from the evolutionary line that led to humans half a billion years ago. But mechanism, with its harsh worship of blind forces and brute matter, offers scant solace to hearts hungry for meaning and companionship. Thankfully, its reign, too, may finally be coming to an end.
It still remains possible to appreciate insects as threads within the intricate tapestry of life, actors who are small but have surprisingly creative roles to play. I went into the woods on Father’s Day for all the usual reasons, to find serenity and rejuvenate my spirit. But while the forest is a place I visit, it is where the insects live, pollinating the blossoms and turning the detritus of decay into the stuff of fresh beginnings. What I experience in nature is a feeling of both strangeness and kinship with a power larger and more lasting than myself—a power that is both vitalizing and weirdly Other—what some might call the presence of God. That sense of exaltation may come or may elude me. But I know the life that inspires it is always there, omnipresent and tireless even when unobserved—like the tiny ant.
From Blessings of the Animals (Lantern Books, 2012)