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Mankind’s 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 she’d have been just fine”.

But she wouldn’t have been just fine if he’d dropped her off in the territory of any of the other three megacolonies in California; she’d 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 there’s Moffett’s 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 Moffett’s 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 Moffett’s 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 what’s 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 Shelley’s 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 he’s earned his moment of peace.

Jared Diamond’s 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 world’s leading and most admired public intellectuals. But this book, I’m 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 languages he speaks. From these he tentatively suggests ways of surviving crises.

There are easily defined, broad similarities between the national and the personal. “Successful coping,” he writes, “with either external or internal pressures requires selective change. That’s as true of nations as of individuals.” He lists 12 factors that are related to the outcomes of a personal crisis – acknowledgment that one is in crisis, seeking help, honest self-appraisal and so on. Then he makes a parallel list for national crises. About seven of these turn out to be the same, but the rest have crucial and pretty obvious differences – political and economic institutions are not likely to be included in the resolution of what used to be called a nervous breakdown.

This is all very neat but rather odd. The individual histories of his chosen countries are, however, superbly gripping and informative. He captures the sheer oddity of Finland, with its strange and beautiful language and its nuanced adjustments to cope with the ever-present threat imposed upon the Finns by their long land border with Russia.

But I think his real subject is the United States, to whose future he devotes two chapters. Here he glimpses the real possibility of a Chilean-style breakdown of political compromise leading to dictatorship. “I… foresee one political party in power in the US government or in state governments increasingly manipulating voter registration, stacking the courts with sympathetic judges, using those courts to challenge election outcomes, and then invoking ‘law enforcement’ and using the police, the National Guard, the army reserve, or the army itself to suppress political opposition.”

Inequality – worse in the US than in any other leading democracy – increases the risk. He asks when the US will take its problems seriously. The answer is: “When powerful rich Americans realize that nothing they do will enable them to remain physcially safe, if most other Americans remain angry, frustrated and realistically without hope”.

For me, this anxiety suggests a link between Moffett and Diamond. Both books are struggling to define – Diamond therapeutically, Moffet anthropologically – ways in which we might be able to fend off disorder, tyranny or collapse. In the course of each this turns out not to be a generalised thesis but an urgent, topical demand. Something new seems to be wrong with the world – failing democracies, extreme politics, divisive rhetoric, kleptocratic capitalism – and these two intellectuals are standing up to be counted. Diamond does this explicitly, Moffett implicitly, by requiring us to take societies seriously as temporary absolutes without which we cannot endure. Neither provides answers, but each at least demands that we sit up and take notice. Ozymandias, king of kings, should have read both. 

Bryan Appleyard writes for the Sunday Times

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive and Fall
Mark W Moffett
Head of Zeus, 480pp, £20

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change
Jared Diamond
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind