Learning from Ants

By Shlomo Maital

     There is much for us humans to learn from Nature – and especially, from ants.  Here is what the Bible says (Proverbs 6):

 “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!  It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.  How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?”

There are 1,000,000,000,000,000 of these insects. One quadrillion!  And they have been around for 150 million years —  massively longer than us humans.  There are 22,000 species!  As the Bible observes, they have no ‘commander’ or Prime Minister, giving orders – just a Queen Ant who has thousands of babies – yet they collaborate perfectly to divide up tasks (gather food, fight enemies, feed the Queen and the larvae).  They have adapted perfectly to their environment; for instance, leaf-cutter ants cut leaves, transport them, chew them up into paste, and store the food.  They are ‘ranchers’ – they colonize and care for aphids, and harvest their liquid.   They have tiny brains, with only 250,000 neurons (human brains have 86 billion), yet in relative terms, ant brains are huge, some 7% of their body weight, far more than humans.  “Ant colonies are superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.”   Would that we humans did the same.

  The top expert on ants is the late naturalist E.O. Wilson; I’ve read some of his fascinating books.  Recently, a biography of Wilson was published:  Richard Rhodes,  Scientist:  Doubleday (November 9, 2021).

   Wilson had a troubled childhood; his parents divorced when he was 7, and he moved from place to place with his alcoholic father.  Wilson found comfort in Nature, and especially in ants.  Ants were his passion from an early age.  “Animals and plants I could count on,” Wilson said… more so than humans.    Wilson pioneered a new scientific discipline, sociobiology:  the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior.  For instance:  How evolution drives social behavior among ants. 

  Wilson had a nemesis:  James Watson, co-discoverer (with Crick) of DNA.  Watson insisted the key to behavior lay at the molecular (genetic) level.  Wilson argued it lay in understanding how social processes are driven by biology, specifically evolution. 

   Of course, both are right.  Ants surpass humans in so many ways. Here is just one:  Asian weaver ants can lift up to one hundred times their own weight!

   Schwarzenegger – eat your heart out. 

   I learned something else from Wilson and ants.  Find your passion from an early age; help your kids and grandkids to do so.   Having a lifelong passion will help you through hard times.  And an early start will lead to great achievements.  It almost doesn’t matter what that passion is – look what ants did for E.O. Wilson.