Ants Are Lazy

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Fairy tales hold the ant up as a loyal, industrious, communal creature. Maybe it's time to reexamine that myth, suggests Stanford entomologist Deborah Gordon in the Boston Review.

It is easy to imagine that the lives of the ants resemble our own. ... Many of our stories about ants concern how hard they work and how they are reconciled to the anomie of life as a pawn in a larger system. Sometimes we imagine that the ants like it that way. Proverbs 6:6 admonishes the sluggard to emulate the hard-working ants. ... Even scientists are prone to imagine that the organization of ant colonies gives them extra power.

But reality doesn't match up, she says. For starters, film depictions of ant bureaucracy are false, because "in real colonies there is no authority." Nor do ants actually have the sense of "collective purpose" we often attribute to them; most of their actions are simply responses to stimuli. When a bunch of ants turn up at a picnic, for example, it's just a matter of combining smells with interactions: "an ant uses the rate at which it meets other ants to decide what to do. ... The safe return of the patrollers, at a rate of about ten ants per second, stimulates the first foragers to go out to search for food."

She then crushes the age-old notion that ants are industrious. In fact, "many ants don't work very hard. In a large harvester-ant colony, about a third of the ants at any time are hanging around doing nothing." Her conclusion? Let's certainly study ants, but drop the morality tales:

Real ants do not offer lessons in behavior. They do, however, provide insight about the dynamics of networks. Ants can show us how the rhythm of local interactions creates patterns in the behavior and development of large groups.

[Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily]

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