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 it’s 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.

LotOfAnts.jpg
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 to 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 3,750 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.

AnnieDillard
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.

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