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.