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Mankinds inner ant: why humans swarm together

Like ants, humans have warlike tendencies and colonial ambition. But our capacity to accept others sets us apart.

Meet the Argentine ant, a nondescript fellow, just an ant really. Genetically we have little in common, but the American biologist (and ant photographer) Mark Moffett argues that, behaviourally, this ant is much closer to us than any chimpanzee or bonobo. This species, he says, “represents a pinnacle of social evolution”.

Like many other ant colonies, their social order is complex, with each member allocated a specific task. Just like us. They also recognise other colonists by a scent marker. We have markers too – haircuts, tattoos, etc – but also something else; I shall come back to that. But the two things that join us most closely to ants are war and colonial ambition. Like ants we swarm.

It used to be thought that Argentine ant society consisted of separate “super-colonies”, mighty aggregations of hundreds of millions of these little beasts spread over many square miles. But now we know that, if unchallenged by a neighbouring colony, these become continent-crossing megacolonies. Moffett says he could picked up an ant in San Francisco, driven 800 kilometres to the Mexican border and “dropped her off, and shed have been just fine”.

But she wouldnt have been just fine if hed dropped her off in the territory of any of the other three megacolonies in California; shed have been dead. Along each border, terrible, futile, First World War-type conflicts rage: “The front lines shift glacially month after month, a few metres one way, then the other.” And all because the other guys smell different.

Apart from its other virtues, The Human Swarm is a book of wonders. Cascades of stories like that of the Argentine ant at first confuse – what is he getting at? On top of that theres Moffetts rebellious nature. Reputations of other thinkers about society are left in tatters. Even Jared Diamond, the venerable author of the other book reviewed here, is dismissed. His book Collapse is flicked aside as “a few extreme instances of what is actually the ever-changing nature of societies”.

Along the way Moffett teases. Early on he offers “a cryptic preview of the conclusions ahead: chimpanzees need to know everybody. Ants need to know nobody. Humans only need to know somebody.”

So what is he getting at? The answer is the absolute centrality of societies to the human experience.

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 Moffetts 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 Moffetts 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.

The second implication is that there is no hope for a universal human society. “The notion of cosmopolitanism, the idea that the people of the world will come to feel a primary connection to the human race, is a pipe dream,” Moffett says.

Secular or religious visions of the emergence of a new, united human world are fantasies. The reason is that such a world cannot be the society we need to define ourselves. Like it or not, we need the continued existence of others, who may be seen as revolting, barbaric or just alien, to know who we are. Moffett quotes the poet Cavafy: “Now whats going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

Obviously this need for otherness can be catastrophic. Discontent in human societies is often directed towards outsiders. As a political ploy this can be explosively effective. Look at the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus killed up to one million Tutsis, many of them neighbours and friends.

On the other hand we do have “an aptitude for harnessing connections with seemingly incompatible others”. But this can be elusive. Bodies such as the United Nations and the EU attempt to achieve harmony between societies but Moffett is sceptical; neither earns emotional commitment “because they lack the ingredients that make them real for the member”. The EU, he thinks, may work because of its perceived need to counter threats from outside but it will never attain the imaginative power of its member states.

True enough, you might say, societies may be absolute in our imaginations but, like everything else, they rise and fall. We should all be humbled like Shelleys Ozymandias, king of kings – “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Such thoughts may topple us into an easy relativism, the default mode of contemporary discourse, but honest introspection should reveal that this, too, is a work of the imagination.

In the end Moffett pins his hope on our “capacity to counter our inherited propensities for conflict through deliberate self-correction”. There is an implicit scientism in this, which, perhaps, returns him to the fold of conventional contemporary thought from which he has so assiduously strayed. Also it is an expression of the imagined world of a particular society at a particular time – absolute to him, alien to others. But, after the tumult of this fascinating, often chaotic book, I think hes earned his moment of peace.

Jared Diamonds Upheaval could not be more different. Where Moffett is sprawling, Diamond is taut and composed; where Moffett is a maverick, Diamond is mainstream. He is now 81. Previous books, notably Guns, Germs and Steel, have made him one of the worlds leading and most admired public intellectuals. But this book, Im afraid, feels just too provisional, too tentative to add much to his existing oeuvre.

He effectively admits as much in his prologue, where he says he has not incorporated quantitative – basically, statistical – methods into this book and that would “remain a task for a separate future project”. In the meantime, this book merely identifies “hypotheses and variables” that might feed into a quantitative analysis.

His approach is to identify a list of the features of personal crises and then to compare these with the features of national crises involving Chile, Finland, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and the United States – all countries with which he is familiar and, mostly, whose lanRead More – Source

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