Philosophy Phriday: The Ants Who Prefer Not To

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 fifty-first contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Helena de Bres, with illustrations by Dr. Julia de Bres.

The Ants Who Prefer Not To

If there’s one thing we think we know about ants, it’s that they work hard. Ants are always dashing around, engaged in some urgent task—and they’re very efficient about it, too. Ant colonies involve a complex division of labor, in which each ant is assigned a specific role. Some are foragers, some gardeners, some soldiers, some carpenters. Others are babysitters, teachers, flood management experts or undertakers. Then you have the ranchers, who herd aphids in the fields, and my personal favorites, the “caterpillar massagers.” (What?) One consequence of all of this impeccably organized industry is that ants have colonized almost every landmass on earth. (Antarctica is a hold out, but you can bet they’re working on it.) Another consequence is that ants can make us humans feel bad about ourselves. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” says Proverbs 6:6, “consider its ways, and be wise.”

If you’re among those who are shamed by ants, a study that came out in 2015 might cheer you up. Biologists at the University of Arizona found that a full 40% of the ants of a Western North American species, Temnothorax rugatulus, spend the vast majority of their day doing literally nothing. When these so-called “lazy ants” aren’t simply standing motionless, they might briefly play with the kids, or half-heartedly wipe a busier neighbor’s back. But then they quickly return to their main occupation, viz. actively undertaking zilch.

Consider how radical a revision in our perception of ants this discovery requires. The usual cultural foil for the ant is the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable, who sings all summer long while the ant gathers wheat, and then starves when winter rolls around. The grasshopper, however, is no lazy ant. He’s standardly pictured with a violin, i.e. he’s an artist. Though Aesop doesn’t mention this, that can take a lot of work. For all we know, the grasshopper has finally mastered the whole set of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas by the end of September, after toiling at it day and night, whereas the ant has had a relatively lenient nine-to-five, answering phones at Iowa Wheat Corp. It’s not like we’ve suddenly found out that many ants are actually grasshoppers, then. The revelation is much more extreme. If we want a figure to accurately represent the lazy ant, I suggest, we’d do better to turn to one of America’s greatest short stories, published in 1853.

Ant who prefered not to

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is narrated by an attorney who runs a moderately successful practice on Wall Street. The attorney employs Bartleby—a “pallidly neat” young man—to join his small team of “scriveners”: a set of human Xeroxes whose sole task is to duplicate legal documents word for word. Bartleby is highly productive for half a week, but things go south on his fourth day of employment. When asked to perform a minor task, Bartleby replies, to his employer’s astonishment, “I would prefer not to.” Over the next few weeks he “prefers not to” do an increasing number of things, until eventually he does nothing other than stare out the window at a brick wall. In his efforts to get Bartleby to first, explain himself, second, return to work, and then finally, get the hell out of the office, the attorney moves through a range of emotions, including amazement, frustration, pity, fear, dread, and then something approaching veneration. Ultimately, in a panic, the attorney himself vacates the premises (in which Bartleby has taken up permanent residence) but is called back when the landlord finds the stubborn ex-scrivener occupying the building’s entryway. Bartleby is carted off to prison for vagrancy and, by dint of refusing to eat, dies curled up in front of the prison wall.

Across the course of the story, Bartleby progressively walls himself in, much as a lazy ant might do in the dim cul-de-sac of an anthill. While he finds himself at the very center of the most bustling commercial hub in the nation, his only social interactions, if you want to call them that, are his very brief conversations with his cowering employer, and wordless monetary exchanges with the boy who delivers him his sole meal, ginger-nuts. He occasionally moves or speaks, but only glacially, after long delays. The Arizona myrmecologists report that “[Lazy] ants walk more slowly […] are isolated in colony interaction networks and have the smallest behavioral repertoires.” They are, I submit, the Bartlebys of the insect world.

What’s going on in Bartleby’s head? This is a problem that obsesses Melville’s narrator. If you’ll indulge me in some serious anthropomorphization (which is what humans have always done with ants—why fight it?) we can muse similarly about lazy ants. Why might they prefer not to?

One possibility, implied by their name, is that lazy ants are simply slackers. They’ve discovered that they don’t need to do anything to earn their keep, because their diligent neighbors will go on supplying them with resources regardless of how they behave. And they find work, well, a lot of work. So they stop. Call this the Effort-Averse Ants hypothesis.

Fig 1 Slacker ant

Someone of an economistic frame of mind might try to extend this explanation to Melville’s Bartleby, by means of the following analogy. Bartleby’s trajectory resembles that of someone on a very accelerated (three-day) tenure track. He writes like a demon, gets a good reputation in the field, and then notices that he has very little chance of being fired. At that point he kicks back and lets the other scriveners / junior faculty do all the work.

On any minimally sensitive reading, however, it’s clear this can’t be right. Bartleby doesn’t in fact have tenure, and he continues to do nothing even after he’s fired. Moreover, his employer doesn’t respond to him in the way that one usually responds to a person who’s clearly lazy—i.e. with anger or resentment. The attorney’s attitude is more like mystification, terror, or awe. Something deeper and more troubling seems to be going on here than simple slothfulness.

Similarly, most tenured professors aren’t plausibly lazy (they probably wouldn’t have gotten tenure if they were). But many of them do experience a significant dip in motivation shortly after promotion. The phenomenon is sufficiently widespread to have a name: “post-tenure depression” or the “academic mid-life crisis.” Tolstoy famously experienced something like this after reaching the peak of his literary career. He found himself questioning each of his activities (“Why?”), tracing them back to the things that had once mattered to him—the writing of books, the management of his estate, the raising of his children, the welfare of the Russian peasantry—and then asking himself: “Well, and then?” To Lev Nikolayevich, the greatest novelist in Russia, there suddenly seemed no ultimate justification for doing anything at all.

Maybe “lazy” ants are mini Tolstoys, then. They aren’t effort-averse, they simply fail to see the point of the whirlwind of activity around them and, as a result, can’t locate a compelling reason to join in. “Why?” they keep asking themselves, when some ant comes past lugging a giant leaf. “Okay, we’re going to grow edible fungus on it. I get it, I get it. And then?” Call this the Mid-life Crisis Ants hypothesis.

Fig 2 Mid-life crisis ant

In his recent book on mid-life crises, philosopher and Philosophy Phridays contributor Kieran Setiya offers the following diagnosis of one source of the problem in humans. After we leave childhood, most of us invest the bulk of our time and energy in “telic” activities. These are occupations or projects—like taking a class, finding a partner, buying a house, writing a book—that are aimed at a completable goal. Our lives become focused on achieving aims, finishing stuff, ticking the next thing off the list. But there’s something self-destructive, even absurd, about this way of organizing one’s life. We engage in these activities because we think they matter. But in each case our aim is to wrap them up: to terminate our active involvement with the things that we value. Around mid-life, those who find many of their core life goals achieved start to inchoately feel this absurdity. They wonder if this box-ticking trajectory is really “all there is” to life, and if so, if there is really much point in living.

Setiya suggests a solution to this crisis that the grasshopper might appreciate. It’s to invest more in “atelic” activities—like hanging out, making art, flitting randomly through the fields—that don’t have an in-built stopping-point that you can or can’t reach. What’s nice about atelic activities is that you don’t need to ask what their point is (“Well? And then?”) They don’t need a point—or, better, they are their own point. Once you shift to an atelic orientation, you can focus on immersing yourself in value, rather than attempting to sequentially eliminate it from your life.

Maybe if the Bartlebys of the insect world and the Bartleby of Wall St absorbed this philosophical nugget, they could overcome their crises and happily return, respectively, to leaf-lugging and scrivening, sustained by the prospect of more fulfilling atelic pursuits in the evenings and weekends. But to some this will seem like a milque-toast, even immoral, accommodation. We live in a world where most of us are all but forced to spend the bulk of our time investing in telic activities, many of which are incredibly boring. And the conditions under which many of us pursue these activities are both inhumane and unjust. We lead our lives trapped in an anthill of ceaseless drudgery that, among other things, crushes the grasshopper in us. What self-respecting, morally motivated ant would be complicit in maintaining this system? Comrades, raise your antennae and Resist! Call this the Anti-Capitalist Ants hypothesis.

Fig 3 Anti-capitalist ant

It’s not hard to give Melville’s short story this reading, a fact not lost on the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They proudly claimed office-occupying Bartleby as their first member, printing his signature phrase on their posters and organizing marathon Melville readings in Zuccotti Park. There are good reasons for thinking that Melville would have approved. He highlights the soul-killing mindlessness of Bartleby’s job—an occupation that his employer refers to as “a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair”, that “the mettlesome poet Byron” would not have tolerated. And Melville himself was frustrated with a literary marketplace that published trifles but refused to support his and others’ serious fiction. (It’s surely no coincidence that Bartleby is a writer, of sorts.) In a society purged of the debased values and stifling fetters of capitalism, as Marx and Engels had put it only five years before Melville’s story was published, this sort of shit wouldn’t happen.

This hypothesis doesn’t work terribly well for the ants, however. Ant colonies are remarkably egalitarian: there’s no oligarchy of one-percenters cracking the whip and making off with the surplus value. In fact, they look a lot more like the flourishing worker cooperatives that socialists dream of than the workplaces of either nineteenth or twenty-first century America. Still, the incessant diligence of the standard ant does disturbingly mirror the ruthless Protestant work ethic that constitutes part of the ideological superstructure fueling capitalist exploitation.

One could go on offering hypotheses for what’s motivating Bartleby and his ant counterparts. (For instance, the above options may be overly dark. Maybe what we’re dealing with here are Buddhist Ants, who can sustain mindfulness meditation much longer than the rest of us.) But let me end with a final, more radical possibility: that lazy ants have no reason at all for their behavior. They just don’t work—no explanation, no justification.

Fig 4 Buddhist ant

This is a live possibility for Bartleby the scrivener. Bartleby, like the story he appears in, defies easy interpretation. He is unmoved by the things that usually motivate humans: food, drink, money, friendship, reputation. And he increasingly abandons one of the core traits of his humanity: the exercise of agency in the world. Why, then, shouldn’t he also lack another defining feature of humans: a tendency to act on the basis of reasons? It is Bartleby’s unwillingness (or is it inability?) to account for his inactivity that really unnerves his employer. In this he resembles Camus’ anti-hero, Meursault, who has no apparent reason for the murder he commits on the beach. Both heroes die in prison, in large part due to their refusal to explain themselves in a way that makes sense to the rest of society. They are disturbing, fascinating, dread-inducing, because they represent an existential threat: they pull back the curtain on the essential irrationality of the universe.

Fig 5 Existentialist ant

I confess to significant sympathy for each of the Slacker, Mid-life Crisis, Anti-Capitalist, Buddhist and Existentialist ants, depending on the kind of day I’m having, so imagine my disappointment when I heard about the latest research on lazy ants, released last fall. The Arizona myrmecologists who did the original study now claim to have shown that lazy ants play a crucial role in the organization of their colonies. It turns out that when active worker ants are removed from the population, inactive ants step up to take on their tasks within a week. The hypothesis is that lazy ants are a kind of colony-wide insurance policy against death and disease, a buffer to keep the whole enterprise functioning without a hitch: the reserve army of the proletariat, if you like. On top of that, it turns out that lazy ants tend to have larger ovaries and abdomens than their Type A friends. So they may also function as “living pantries”—storing food in their stomachs, as well as eggs in their reproductive organs, that they can regurgitate / lay for others during the factory lunch break.

How very deflating. Lazy ants are not philosophers after all, but collaborators and sell-outs! The Machine falters for a second, and—hey presto!—they fold themselves meekly in!

Is there a moral to this blog post? Aesop had one (though I never liked it); Melville, like all great writers, either didn’t, or kept it to himself. I’m a moral philosopher, so I can hardly avoid it.  Let’s go for the two lessons you’ve probably thought of yourself. First, it doesn’t pay to anthropomorphize. Second, it’s worth questioning every now and then both our attitudes to our work and the conditions under which we pursue it. If you want me to give you more than that, you’re out of luck; I’m on my post-tenure sabbatical, and frankly I’d prefer not to.

me_NYEDr. Helena de Bres teaches ethics, political theory and philosophy of literature at Wellesley College. Her current research is on a set of questions concerning personal narration, meaning in life and literary nonfiction (more about that here). She is also working on an essay collection combining philosophy with creative writing. Finally, and most importantly, Dr. de Bres is the author of a guide to taking philosophy classes that features not an ant, but a flea.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 8.41.42 AMDr. Julia de Bres is a linguistic ant-thropologist who researches multilingualism at the University of Luxembourg and draws animals and cartoons.