Ant Geopolitics

Over the past four centuries quadrillions of ants have created a strange and turbulent global society that shadows our own

John Witfield at Aeon Magazine: It is a familiar story: a small group of animals living in a wooded grassland begin, against all odds, to populate Earth. At first, they occupy a specific ecological place in the landscape, kept in check by other species. Then something changes. The animals find a way to travel to new places. They learn to cope with unpredictability. They adapt to new kinds of food and shelter. They are clever. And they are aggressive.

In the new places, the old limits are missing. As their population grows and their reach expands, the animals lay claim to more territories, reshaping the relationships in each new landscape by eliminating some species and nurturing others. Over time, they create the largest animal societies, in terms of numbers of individuals, that the planet has ever known. And at the borders of those societies, they fight the most destructive within-species conflicts, in terms of individual fatalities, that the planet has ever known.

Some animal societies hold together because their members recognize and remember one another when they interact. Relying on memory and experience in this way – in effect, trusting only friends – limits the size of groups to their members’ capacity to sustain personal relationships with one another. Ants, however, operate differently by forming what the ecologist Mark Moffett calls ‘anonymous societies’ in which individuals from the same species or group can be expected to accept and cooperate with each other even when they have never met before. What these societies depend on, Moffett writes, are ‘shared cues recognized by all its members’.

This might sound like our story: the story of a hominin species, living in tropical Africa a few million years ago, becoming global. Instead, it is the story of a group of ant species, living in Central and South America a few hundred years ago, who spread across the planet by weaving themselves into European networks of exploration, trade, colonization and war – some even stowed away on the 16th-century Spanish galleons that carried silver across the Pacific from Acapulco to Manila. During the past four centuries, these animals have globalized their societies alongside our own.

It is tempting to look for parallels with human empires. Perhaps it is impossible not to see rhymes between the natural and human worlds, and as a science journalist I’ve contributed more than my share. But just because words rhyme, it doesn’t mean their definitions align. Global ant societies are not simply echoes of human struggles for power. They are something new in the world, existing at a scale we can measure but struggle to grasp: there are roughly 200,000 times more ants on our planet than the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way.

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