Sunday, July 3, 2011

Of Ants and Men: Too Big for Our Britches? Too Ant-Like for Comfort? by Margaret Atwood

In Anthill, there is a runaway Supercolony of ants – made possible by a genetic variant that allows many queenlets, each with its own subcolony, to exist in close proximity, rather than one colony with one queen, all other claimants having been killed. This Supercolony is killing and eating every living thing within its reach. Nothing can stand against it.
Then some “gods” arrive – in reality, human beings with insecticide sprayers, tired of too many ants at their picnics – and put an end to the Supercolony.

If this deus plus machina had not arrived, would the Supercolony have perished, having expanded beyond the capacity of its environment to keep it supplied with food? Or would it just have kept expanding outward in a ring, like a mushroom, leaving a dead center? 

Wilson draws explicit parallels between ant colonies and human civilizations.  Each arises, builds itself up, fights off competitors, flourishes, goes into decline, and eventually perishes, overwhelmed by stronger invaders.  Is this parallel fully merited?

Is there an implication that human society on earth has now become a Supercolony,  devouring everything in its path and with no check to its growth?  If so, is it in danger of eating itself out of existence?  

What about the “gods” – the equivalent of the human beings with insecticide sprayers?  Are we in danger of becoming our own annihilating “gods,” and if so, what form might this act of self-extermination take?


gracec-walton said...

In my opinion if the humans did not come I think that the Supercolony would grow and collapse due to the amount of food its colony needed to survive. The ecosystem in their part of the Nokobee Tract was dying due to the imbalance of predators and prey. Spiders that once feared scavenging ants were being hunted instead. Plants were unable to grow do to the symbiotic relationship between the ants and the mealybugs that pierced plants and sucked out the sap. But perhaps the ants would move outward like a mushroom pattern to search for more food. It would have been very difficult for the entire colony to be moved. It would have to have been about the same size as the hidden Woodland Colony.

Though I am not as knowledgable in Latin as my fellow scholars, I can relate to your second question. I feel that the Roman Empire would be a strong example running parallel to the ant colonies Wilson described. Its territories ran through the southern part of modern day Eastern Europe and Northern Africa (modern day). However its territories were lost against native people and enemies. The Roman Empire grew to the point, where it was difficult to protect all of its land.

I believe that there is an implication that we humans have become a Supercolony. We have this problem in Atlanta, Georgia. From my AP Human teacher, I learned something called "urban sprawl". This is a major problem that is the cause of unplanned urban development. If we were to fly a plane from the Big Apple to Hartsfield Jackson, we could see the sprawling (really). Unlike Rochester, New York where the houses/stores are organized in clean blocks, Georgian house/store areas have no geometric shape. Currently, due to our rapid technology and transportation we can not eat ourselves out from existence. However, if we were to look around the world, we have become so independent to oil. This leads us to search high and low for areas that may have this resource. This led us to off-shore drilling. As we could see this year if spills like the Deepwater Horizon happen once more not only will we damage tremendous amounts of life but warn us even more that we need to search for a new resource before it is too late.

The "gods" are actually more sensitive than the ants believe. We, like the Supercolony, may be asking for it. It is not just oil. We have oil spills, chemical run offs and wars. Another form that may kill our species is vaccines and medication. Though there are people that take care and do not take as much medication, I fear that there will be a point where we may not be able to find a cure or vaccine to prevent death or sickeness. Darwinism applies to these non-living bacteria and viruses. We need to create stronger and stronger immunities. But, will this always work for our benefit? Sometimes I wonder.

Ted Schmidt said...

Ms. Atwood, I am interested in what you think about Wilson's storytelling as a means to convey science and its processes. Do stories make ant ecology more accessible and perhaps illuminate how we humans behave? The parallels between ants and humans fascinate me.

Margaret Atwood said...

Hello Gracec-Walton: You've thought this through...
yes, I believe the Supercolony would eventually run out of food, but it would probably be a while, as it would continue to expand outwards. Problem with we humans is that we may already have exceeded our ability to produce enough food for those now existing using conventional methods- a trend compounded by rising temperature, which will mean lower yields, and the worrrying collapse of ocean ecosystems (and therefore fish). Thus the movement towards such things as lab-grown meat and the exploration of - for instance-- perennial cereal crops, that would require less cultivation,less irrigation, and thus less fuel oil.

Margaret Atwood said...

Hello Ted Schmidt: Well, the ant part on Anthill is rivetting, in the same way that books of military strategy are rivetting. It certainly helps one understand what's going on underfoot, or (in my case) underneath the flat stones in the garden, where it's just the right amount of damp to appeal to those little yellow ones. But ants and humans -- though similar in some respects -- are very, very different. We -- for instance -- are credited with individual self-awareness and foresight. But from the point of view of -- say -- an invading alien such as those in Wells' War of the Worlds, I'm afraid we would look a lot like ants.

Claudia Casper said...

This is a truly wonderful way to follow you reading this book. One of the gifts of the internet! Thanks Ms. Atwood, Claudia Casper

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Wild Read, I just finished AntHill and was riveted. Thanks for discussion of these key issues. I want to read it again, to understnad all the layers.
I am the retired executive director of a small land trust and recall being asked if I wanted someone to walk me to my car for my own safety after I testified in a hearing about development of property with a unique wetland and state-endangered orchid.
I agree with Margaret Atwood's comment in her book review: "The largeness of the task, and the smallness of the accomplishment, make "Anthill" a mournful eulogy as well: this may be all that can be saved, but we are led to understand that it's worth saving." I hope this book will inspire more Raphaels.

brianl-walton said...

Hello Mrs. Atwood. The thought-provoking questions you ask brings my thoughts into mind.

The fortune of the Supercolony is a mystery and has several possible outcomes. If the “gods” had not arrived, I believe that they would have moved throughout the environment in a way that mimics migrant diffusion. Just like the Woodland colony had done, the Supercolony would have probably found and migrated to the new habitats in the surrounding areas and would have left slowly growing ring of destruction. Many people believe them to be identical to the human race, so it is an intelligent guess to believe that they would also do anything to survive, like us.

The ants have a cycle similar to our own ancient civilizations. Each have beginnings, and all have been wiped out. Right now, however, we are more developed mentally than the previous civilizations. We have the ability to reason and communicate with our enemies, draw up treaties, and prevent the massacre of another race. Many battles and wars have ended in diplomatic solutions; few have ended in the complete annihilation of the other group. Humans also have another quality that the ants do not have. We are able to reproduce without the need of a hive queen. If the human race were to be separated in some world disaster, we would still be able to reproduce because we individually have the organs necessary to make our own progeny. I think that is the greatest weakness of the ant colonies. Their civilizations would end with the death of one important figure. The two traits that we possess give us an immense advantage over the ants. If we somehow cooperate together and stop all the nonsense with the fighting, we actually have the possibility of creating a worldwide Supercolony, living for the benefit of the entire species. This is something that the ants will never achieve. Someday we will break out of the simple cycle of the ants and learn to live as one.

We are not yet a Supercolony, but are close to becoming one. The ants in the Supercolony achieved this feat because they were less sensitive to the smell of their own queen. So they lived as one colony because to them the queens all smelled the same. Before the mutation, that barrier that prevented them from joining together to form the Supercolony can be compared to our barriers dealing with race, religion, and culture. These factors prohibit us from achieving the Supercolony’s kind of power; until we break these barriers, there will always be fighting with no end. When we do become a Supercolony, I believe that it will be completely different than the Supercolony of ants. We have learned that our actions within nature affect all animals of Earth. Slowly, but surely, we are cutting back on energy consumption, expenditure of natural resources, and reduced pollution output on the things we use, such as cars, so that we may have a world to live in when that day of global colonization occurs. We will be called a Supercolony, but we will be a colony that is environmentally aware, respecting every organism that lives among us. I am sure with the breakthroughs of science, there will be enough food for all of us. If we run out of options on Earth, who says we have to stay on Earth? I hope that soon humanity takes its first baby steps off the safety of our home into the cosmos where the possibilities are endless.

The ants of the Supercolony were primitive. They were born, gathered food, fought with claws and teeth, and then died. They died without resistance, and by the poison fumes created by us. We humans, in my belief, are masters of our own fate. We control what happens, or can at least make things the way we want them to be. With our ingenious minds I think we can solve or overcome any problem. When we eventually face these issues, they will probably something to deal with the environment, whether it be rising carbon dioxide levels, shortage of food, or a disease originating from an organism. Whatever it is, we will always overcome it and continue the existence of our species.