Philosophy Phriday: The Fecundity of Ants and the Goodness of Existing

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the thirtieth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Kevin Timpe.


The Fecundity of Ants and the Goodness of Existing

“Kevin! Get in here!” comes my wife’s voice from the kitchen, brimming with an emotion somewhere between irritation and exasperation.

We’d just moved our family of five over 1,500 miles across the country, replete with all the difficulties that such a transition involved, and were trying to settle into our new house in time for the school year to begin.

“What’s the problem?” I ask, hoping its something falling within my fairly narrow skill set.

“We have ants in our pantry. Ants. And lots of them!”

Words like ‘lots’ are, of course, context sensitive. Three or four dozen ants crawling around our pantry and into our recycling bins is certainly more than I want in my house. But looked at in other ways, that’s not a lot.

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A lot of ants. Photo: Alex Wild

It’s estimated that there are over 10 quadrillion ants in the world. If correct, that’s over 1 million ants for every human in the world—enough for the biomass of ants account for 15-25% of the terrestrial animal biomass in various regions. Now that’s a lot of ants.

Ant profligately is, in part, a function of their reproductive efficiency. A single ant queen may lay as many as 300,000 eggs in a single day, and millions over the course of a lifetime. A single colony of invasive Argentinian ants in Europe has been discovered that stretches over 3750 miles.

And it’s not just the sheer quantity of ants. There are over 13,000 known species within the ant family (Formicidae). With the exception of a few islands, the Antarctic, and the Artic, they can be found nearly everywhere. Ted Schultz, staff in the entomology department at the Smithsonian Institution, writes that ants are “arguably the greatest success story in the history of terrestrial metazoan.”1

Our four-year-old’s reaction to finding ants in the house is markedly different than my wife’s. “Ah, he’s so cute. He’s my friend. All the ants are my friends.”2

For her, ants are a good thing (even if they are in the pantry). In this thought, she’s not alone.

Augustine would agree that ants are good precisely because he thinks that everything that exists is good:

The Creator and all he created are good…. If they [i.e., created things] were to be deprived of all good, they will be nothing at all. Therefore as long as they exist, they are good. Accordingly, whatever things exist are good…. Hence I saw and it was made clear to me that you made all things good, and there are absolutely no substances which you did not make. As you did not make all things equal, all things are good in the sense that taken individually they are good, and all things taken together are very good.3

And Thomas Aquinas is well known for his insistence that being and goodness are coextensive:

Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea; which is clear from the following argument. The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): “Goodness is what all desire.” Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (I:3:4; I:4:1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present.4

Furthermore, many medieval thinkers also endorsed what Arthur Lovejoy called “the principle of plenitude,” In The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy documents the Platonic and Aristotelian origins of this idea, though he argues that it first appears “as fully organized into a coherence general scheme of things” in the Neoplantonism of Plotinus.5 According to the principle of plentitude, it is not just existence which is good but the maximal diversity of created existence. The non-existence of a kind of created being that could have existence would suggest a stinginess that is incompatible with the self-diffusive nature of love. On this sort of view, perhaps we should be surprised that there aren’t greater numbers and kinds of ants, rather than marvel at their profligateness.

One of my favorite American authors, Annie Dillard, reflects at the profligateness of nature in her Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (Though she doesn’t focus explicitly on ants—perhaps one of the shortcomings of an otherwise stunning text.) Dillard’s name for profligateness is fecundity, and is the title of one of the central chapters.  Dillard foreshadows her fixation on fecundity in an early chapter on nature.

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This is Annie Dillard. She is not an ant.

Nature is, above all, profligate.  Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place?  This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital.6

The limitless capital of nature buys all kinds of things. Dillard spends pages delineating a parasite that spends its entire life in the lips of other parasites.  What kind of world is this we live in when there are second-order parasites?  Surely this is misspent capital.  Dillard points out that she’s learned that a full ten percent of the world’s species are parasitic insects. “What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring, or totally destroying the other ninety percent.”7

One might think that such an argument for the goodness of ants given their mere existence is open only to the religious thinker. But there are in fact arguments for the goodness of existence. Scott Davison’s On the Intrinsic Value of Everything is a deceptively thin volume addressing such arguments. Davison provides an extended case for the titular claim through both rigorous argument and what he, following Gary Gutting, calls “persuasive elaboration.”8 As Davison intends the claim, “something is intrinsically valuable (or good in itself) if and only if it would be valued for its own sake by fully informed, properly functioning valuers.”9 Furthermore, Davison thinks “the intrinsic value of things provides us with reasons for treating them with respect even if the human-centered reasons for doing this happen to fail on a particular occasion.”10

This is a conclusion that our four-year-old would gladly endorse, were she to read Davison’s book. “All the ants are my friends. We should be nice to them. You can’t kill him.”

“OK,” I tell her and my wife. “Go get a dixie cup. We’ll move him outside with all his other friends.”

1http://www.pnas.org/content/97/26/14028.full

2What she doesn’t know is that all worker ants are female. So she’s guilty of some myrmecological gender confusion here. But she’s four. And she’s awesome.

3Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press: 1991), 7.v.7 and 7.xii.18.

4Summa Theologaie Ia q. 5 a. 1. Eleonore Stump responds to a number of objections to Aquinas’s view here in chapter two of her Aquinas (Routledge: 2003).

5The Great Chain of Being (Harvard University Press, 1976), 61.

6Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perinnial: 1994), 67.

7Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perinnial: 1994), 221.

8On the Intrinsic Value of Everything (Continuum: 2012), 2 following Gary Gutting, What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy (Cambridge University Press: 2009), 77f.

9On the Intrinsic Value of Everything, 12.

10On the Intrinsic Value of Everything, 5.


KevinTimpeDr. Kevin Timpe teaches in the philosophy department at Calvin College. He previous taught at Northwest Nazarene University (where there are fewer ants than in Michigan) and the University of San Diego (which was apparently built on a gigantic anthill). His research has focused on the the metaphysics of free will, virtue ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of disability.

T.V. Tuesday: The Kardashiants

We start this post with an unusual sentence: A recent headline in New York Daily News caught our attention. What was the headline?

“Fire ants could be used to help Kim Kardashian”

It turns out that a component of the chemicals released in a fire ant sting also may alleviate some symptoms of an auto-immune disease called psoriasis. And Kim Kardashian has psoriasis. Thus, fire ants could be used to help Kim Kardashian.

But our story does not end with this New York Daily News article. Investigative reporting by The Daily Ant has revealed that the Kardashian family is remarkably antlightened. There are at least two other occasions of Kardashians dabbling in the world of Formicidae. Consider this scientific inquiry by both Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian:

Or, dwell on this myrmecological musing by Kanye West, husband of Kim Kardashian, during a lecture at Oxford University (video here):

People say it takes a village to raise a child. People ask me how my daughter is doing. She’s only doing good if your daughter’s doing good. We’re all one family. We have the ability to approach our race like ants, or we have the ability to approach our race like crabs.

Thus, The Daily Ant is surprised to report that Keeping Up with the Kardashians by association, is one of the most ant-friendly shows currently on television.

UPDATE (09/13/2017): Public Relations Consultant Natalia Piland suggests that The Daily Ant ought to answer Kourtney’s and Khloé’s noble inquiry. The answer is: Yes, basically. In ants, as in other insects, it’s called an aedeagus.

Philosophy Phriday [On a Monday]: Ant Philosophies of Farming

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-ninth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Samantha Noll. We apologize for the delay this week, but it was worth the wait!


Ant Philosophies of Farming

Like humans, one of the reasons why ants are successful as a species is that they have the ability to eat a wide variety of things, from plant matter to other insects and even dead animals. Different species of ants prefer different types of food, but the cornucopia of options flows over for these little omnivores. In addition, ants have also learned how to cultivate their favorite foods (Klein, 2017). In fact, ants developed farming techniques millions of years before humans and can be accredited with the discovery of many of the practices that we currently employ. Today as many as 250 distinct species actively cultivate and maintain fungus “farms” for food (Klein, 2017). In tropical areas, grassland, and deserts, colonies grow their crops in underground rooms, where they weed, water, and use chemicals and antibiotics to remove bacterial threats and thus to increase crop-yields (Branstetter et al., 2017). They even employ monocropping techniques and were the first to domesticate a type of fungus for their food usage. In some instances, ants and the fungi developed a co-dependent relationship, each depending on the other for survival. When viewed from this perspective, one could argue that ants were the first agrarians, creating and controlling novel ecosystems to ensure food security & ecological sustainability for ant-kind.

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Ants farmed millions of years before new humanoid agro-fads. Photo: Alex Wild

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In Memory of John Ashbery

Poet John Ashbery died late Sunday, at the age of 90. In honor of the polarizing poet, we present his 1979 poem, “Late Echo”:

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

And Ashbery was antsy to the end. An excerpt from his 2016 poem, “Sitting at the Table”:

It wasn’t always this way.
Somewhere, ants were taking control
of earth’s blistered pulse.
Peanuts were jettisoned from the nacelle
of the montgolfière, all moyenâgeux and thrifty
as it came to be about. I ask only for staples
for my staple gun.

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AMNH to Enter the Future

The Daily Ant is thrilled to report that the American Museum of Natural History is poised to truly live up to its name. Although announced on January 11, 2017, we were previously unaware of this historic development: AMNH will soon house an insectarium! Marvel at the gorgeous artistic rendering of the plans:

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The renovations are led by architect Jeanne Gang, who has strong ties with Chicago, and are expected to be completed in 2020. For more, check out coverage in the New York Post.

Naturally, we anticipate that ants will receive their due in this exhibit. Watch this space in three years for our review!

Philosophy Phriday: Ants Are Alive

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-eighth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Marc Lange.


Ants Are Alive

Ants are widely reported to be alive. These reports raise an obvious question: What is it for something to be alive?

By this, I do not mean to ask what makes something alive rather than dead. Only a thing that was once alive (or, at least, could have been alive) can be dead. A rock is not dead; it was not ever (and could not ever have been) alive. The question that I am asking is not what distinguishes a living human being from a corpse, when is the moment of death, or is there a moment of death. Rather, the question I am asking is what distinguishes living matter (of which an ant is one example) from non-living matter.

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This ant sure looks alive… but is it? Photo: Alex Wild

This is an important question for exobiology: the study of life elsewhere in the universe. What are scientists looking for when they are looking for extraterrestrial life? If a future space probe supplies evidence that there is extraterrestrial life somewhere, what will this be evidence for?

As late as the early twentieth century, some scientists believed that living matter is distinguished from non-living matter by what it is made of. According to “vitalism”, living matter contains a vital spark or fluid or some other kind of stuff that is absent from non-living matter. Vitalism was not as outlandish an idea as it might seem to us nowadays. Various subtle fluids were often invoked in nineteenth-century physics, as when heat was regarded as a fluid (caloric) that flows from hotter bodies to cooler ones. Various capacities of living things – e.g., to move, to synthesize various chemical compounds, to reproduce – had not yet been explained in terms of the capacities of ordinary matter. However, the prospect of giving these explanations has since then greatly increased, and as a result, vitalism has become less and less plausible.

Another option is to reject the question of what makes some matter living on the grounds that there is no non-arbitrary place to draw the line between living and non-living matter. Viruses famously seem like living things in some respects but not in others. They are not cellular but they can reproduce — but they cannot reproduce all by themselves. (Nor can I, of course.) They cannot move of their own accord, but some parts of them (such as their injectors) can. They require no nourishment and can essentially last forever if unmolested. Chemical evolution supplies another argument that there is a grey area between life and non-life. If living matter arose from non-living matter, presumably the boundary was not crossed at a particular moment. Rather, matter became increasingly alive.

But even if being living is not an all-or-nothing matter, it can still make sense to ask what it is for something to lie more towards the living end of the spectrum or more toward the non-living end. Even if vitality is a matter of degree, we should try to understand what features contribute toward vitality, placing some matter at some location on the spectrum. Being living or non-living can be like night and day, which also have intermediate stages.

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A male army ant at night. But is it alive? Photo: Alex Wild

There is another popular option (especially in the boilerplate opening chapters of biology textbooks, which often define biology as “the study of life” and then find themselves facing the uncomfortable question, “What is life?”). It is to go functionalist: some matter is alive to the degree that it can perform various “life functions”, such as reproducing, exchanging energy with its environment, responding to stimuli, organizing the matter that it assimilates into a new form, moving of its own accord, and so on.

Admittedly, many living things do many of these things. But of course, many non-living things do, too. A hurricane takes in matter from its environment and assimilates it into a new form, as does a water wave. They both move. A candle flame “reproduces” (given an unlit candle) and exchanges energy with its environment. A piece of iron responds to the stimulus of being in the presence of oxygen by rusting. The fact that these non-living things possess some of these capacities does not move them even a smidgen toward the living end of the spectrum. Likewise, there are many living things that lack some of these capacities. Yet a sterile “worker” or “soldier” ant is no less alive than its fertile colleagues.

Another problem with functionalism is that there does not seem to be anything that ties the various “life functions” together. They seem to form an arbitrary “laundry list” of capacities that (arguably) are more common among living than non-living things. What is it that makes a given capacity qualify as one of the “life functions”?

Nevertheless, functionalism seems like it might contain some kernel of truth. After all, in a famous Sesame Street sketch, Robin Williams uses functionalist grounds to argue that his shoe is not alive because it cannot eat, breathe, or grow.

Perhaps one step towards understanding what might be correct about functionalism is that the fact that a given thing is alive has sometimes been used to explain why that thing has the capacity to perform a given life function. In the history of science, we can find cases in which scientists explicitly debated whether or not some entity is alive, and the debates focused on whether or not its vitality is the most plausible explanation of some of its capacities. That the heavenly bodies move was once widely believed (even as late as Galileo’s time) to be best explained by their vitality. Likewise, until the mid-nineteenth century, scientists debated whether fungi are alive, and these arguments concerned whether fungi exhibit some “life functions” and, if so, whether the best explanation is that they are living. (It was long unclear, for instance, whether fungi grow, reproduce, or move.)

What would it take for a thing’s vitality to explain why it has various capacities? Perhaps it will turn out that all living things, when they perform their life functions, do so in an importantly similar way that is uncommon among non-living things with these capacities. Of course, this similarity would have to lie at a fairly deep, abstract level. One possibility is that living things perform these functions in a “bottom-up”, “self-organized”, “emergent” way. That is, roughly speaking, although each component (at a fairly basic level) of a living thing is governed by equations that determine its behavior given its environment, there is no such equation for the living thing as a whole. Its final state cannot be computed by some effective procedure, even given its initial state and its surroundings. There are cellular automata (see here) where each component’s next state is determined by a simple rule plus its neighbors’ current states, but where there is no way to predict the overall outcome except by stepping through a simulation of the system.

Perhaps what contributes toward making something living is not merely that it performs a life function, but that it does so emergently. Perhaps what puts a capacity among the life functions is that it can be performed emergently. Perhaps when vitality explains why a living thing can carry out various life functions, the explanation does not supply the precise causal mechanism that the living thing uses, but the explanation nevertheless specifies an important feature of the causal story: that the life function arises emergently.

On the other hand, perhaps there is nothing important that is common to the ways in which living things perform their life functions and that is uncommon among non-living things. Perhaps the notion of vitality is just an outmoded vestige that ultimately has no scientific work to do. Which of these options will prove to be the case is an open empirical question.


MarcLangeDr. Marc Lange is the Theda Perdue Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as Chair of the UNC Department of Philosophy. Dr. Lange specialized in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and epistemology – check out his description of his own extensive work, in a display of extraordinary adjective diversity, here.

Editorial: Message on Houston’s Fire Ants

Here at The Daily Ant, we know that so much of the mainstream media enjoys focusing on (allegedly) negative ant characteristics. Our online newspaper actively works to counteract this insidious bias. However, there are a few truly bad actors within the formicid family that deserve genuine condemnation. Fire ants are one of these few bad actors.

Amid the historic and devastating flooding disaster underway in Houston, Texas, many fear for their lives. It is thus understandable that the average citizen is subsequently terrified when, while on a boat in their neighborhood-turned-lake, they encounter this:

Although these are ants, and although a floating raft of ants is objectively amazing in addition to being genuinely terrifying, we strongly condemn any fire ant that attacks a human during these trying times. We also recommend that whether you are a human or a non-invasive ant, you avoid these floating rafts to the best of your ability! And, in solidarity with our vertebrate sisters and brothers, we urge you to donate to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

 

Note: We thank several of our readers – Rose, Nathan, Ted, and Jason – for reaching out to us about these ant rafts!

Antfographic: Ant Colony Optimization

Ant Colony Optimization is an excellent example of ant biology directly improving human affairs (in this case, planning delivery routes and other uses). Thus, we were excited to learn that University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student Anika Hazra created an interesting antfographic that introduces the Ant Colony Optimization algorithm and explains its utility! Hazra reached out to us with her premier ant content, and we’re thankful she did:

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Philosophy Phriday: The Existential Upshot of Crazy Ants

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-seventh contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Ryan Kemp.


The Existential Upshot of Crazy Ants

The ant has an ambiguous place in Western literature. We all know Aesop’s classic rendition: the industrious ant measured against his jaunty neighbor the grasshopper. Grasshopper wastes away the summer hours with music and good humor, while Ant sees the writing on the wall: winter is coming and merry-makers fare not well. Ant works while Grasshopper plays and he is rewarded in the end by, well, not starving to death. In one version of the fable Ant gets a little malicious and admonishes his now desperately starving friend to “dance the winter away.” Serves him right, I suppose.

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La Fontaine’s Ant and Grasshopper

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T.V. Tuesday: Rick and Morty

Yesterday, in addition to breaking a news story about ants and the solar eclipse, The Daily Ant was also informed by Thinker Correspondant Jordan MacKenzie that the cartoon sitcom Rick and Morty recently featured a new character, Million Ants. He apparently developed a relationship with another character in the show, Supernova – as the fan wiki explains: “[Million Ants] states that it was [Supernova’s] beliefs and pursuit of justice that taught him to be a man, not just a sentient pile of ants. Supernova stated that he was ‘always the romantic’.” Furthermore, the wiki notes, their exploits “somehow would come to conceive a child, who was half-star and half-ant, however, this child would not live to see birth.”

For a look at Million Ants’ short-lived appearance on the show, check out this video constructed by a fan (NOTE: Adult Content):

Correspondant MacKenzie correctly observes that “Ah yes that video is really all you need. The rest of the episode is just filler insofar as it isn’t about one million ants.”

Rick and Morty has featured ants before, in the form of Ants in My Eyes Johnson, but we at The Daily Ant are pleased to see this more substantive inclusion of ant material!