Ants and Others
by Adrien Stoutenburg
Their spare, fanatic sentry comes
across the miles of afternoon
and finds us out — our single crumb
left dozing an a yellowed spoon —
sets up his wireless, reports
to Brown Shirts, comrades, pantry thieves.
(Their army goes like coffee grounds
down doorknobs, drains, up balconies
we meant to guard from minor lusts,
but lacked the key or missed the time.)
Defenseless now, the last crust leans
beside a cup. The brown knots climb,
as neat as clocks. I feel the heat
of other lives, and hungers bent
on honeycombs that are not there,
and do not ask what sweet is meant
for which of us, there being such need
of loaves and fishes everywhere.
Imagine that 1 million years ago, long before the origin of humanity, a team of alien scientists landed on Earth to study its life-forms. Their first report would surely include something like the following: This planet is teeming with more than 1,000 trillion highly social creatures, representing at least 20,000 species!
… The study of ants, President Lowell, of Harvard University, said when he bestowed an honorary degree on the great myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler in the 1920s, has demonstrated that these insects “like human beings, can create civilization without the use of reason.”
The superorganisms are the clearest window through which scientists can witness the emergence of one level of biological organization from another. This is important, because almost all of modern biology consists of a process of reduction of complex systems followed by synthesis. During reductive research, the system is broken down into its constituent parts and processes. When they are well enough known, the parts and processes can be pieced back together and their newly understood properties used to explain the emergent properties of the complex system. Synthesis is in most cases far harder than reduction. For example, biologists have come far in defining and describing the molecules and organelles that compose the foundation of life. At the next higher major level of biological organization, biologists have further described in precise detail many of the emergent structures and properties of cells. But this achievement is still a long way from understanding fully how molecules and organelles are assembled, arranged, and activated to create a complete living cell. Similarly, biologists have learned the properties of many of the species that compose the living parts of a few ecosystems — for example, ponds and forest patches. They have worked out large-scale processes, including material and energy cycles. But they are far from mastering the many complex ways in which species interact to create the higher-level patterns.
Social insects, in contrast, offer a far more accessible connection between two levels of biological organization.
… we view the insect colony as the equivalent of an organism, the unit that must be examined in order to understand the biology of colonial species. Consider one of the most organism-like of all insect colonies, the great colonies of the African driver ants. Viewed from afar, the huge raiding column of a driver ant colony seems like a single living entity. It spreads like the pseudopodium of a giant amoeba across 70 meters or so of ground. A closer look reveals it to comprise a mass of several million workers running in concert from the subterranean nest, an irregular network of tunnels and chambers dug into the soil. As the column emerges, it first resembles an expanding sheet and then metamorphoses into a treelike formation, with the trunk growing from the nest, the crown an advancing front the width of a small house, and numerous branches connecting the two. The swarm is leaderless. The workers rush back and forth near the front. Those in the vanguard press forward for a short distance and then turn back into the tumbling mass to give way to other advancing runners. These predatory feeder columns are rivers of ants coming and going. The frontal swarm, advancing at 20 meters an hour, engulfs all the ground and low vegetation in its path, gathering and killing all the insects and even snakes and other larger animals unable to escape. After a few hours, the direction of the flow is reversed, and the column drains backward into the nest holes.