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Anty-capitalists and anty-communists

How do we hold on to the belief in our own power to contribute to the world in a huge and complex society of billions of people? Sometimes it helps to watch ants, explain ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

IN A world of nearly eight billion people, it can be easy to feel small and unimportant. Particularly when the political climate is hostile and the prospects for change seem bleak.

Nevertheless, change is made by the people that work together to build incredible things. The great pyramids and cathedrals, all of the grandeur of human engineering, the feats of mass education, health provision and food distribution are built by people working together to create the world we live in.

Even where these feats have been made by people coerced by violence or deprivation, they show the total reliance of capital and bosses on the incredible power produced entirely by workers.

Understanding our complex societies is a monumental challenge. Complexity is investigated by scientists who are interested in knowing how highly interlinked networks produce patterns, communication routes and emergent phenomena. Although new computational tools allow for new approaches to this question, one of the oldest fields of science also continues to yield new answers: the study of insects.

Our fascination with the intricacy and complexity of human society spills over into a fascination with the intricate and complex societies of insects. Insects make up an unimaginably huge proportion of life on Earth; one million species of insect have been identified, but it is thought there are likely to be more like 10m distinct species alive today, about 90 per cent of the number of species on the planet.

There are about 1.4bn insects for every person on Earth, and the combined weight of this vast number is roughly 70 times the weight of all humans.

These numbers are produced by the Royal Entomological Society, an establishment among many with the aim of supporting people that dedicate a significant proportion of their entire life to observing and recording insect movement and interaction. This work requires huge commitment over a long time and painstakingly careful hours of effort.

Given the huge numbers of insect species, it is not surprising that entomology has barely scratched the surface of what might be known about insects. Insects are so varied and numerous that their study produces a myriad of new concepts of society and a fertile ground for metaphors.

The emblem of ants, in particular, has long been used by socialists and by capitalists alike to reimagine human nature through the lens of their collective behaviour.

There are many different types of ant, but the family includes some of the most famous eusocial insects.

Eusocial means that there is a division of labour between different individual ants within each colony. This division means that in these species, ants “sacrifice themselves” for one another, achieving the reproduction of the colony rather than the individual. In eusocial insects, extreme differences in things such as body size between individuals with different roles is not uncommon.

The human interpretation of ant sociality has not been lost on entomologists and their fans throughout the ages. Aristotle remarked on the ideal citizenship of ants in working for the good of the collective. In recent decades, celebrated entomologist EO Wilson said: “Karl Marx was right. Socialism works. It is just that he had the wrong species in mind.”

However, there is seemingly very little that can be lifted directly from ant communality for application in human relations. In many respects the analogy just doesn’t work.

All worker ants are female and devote their lives to gathering food for, and ensuring the safety of, the queen ant and her eggs and larvae, who will be the next generation of the colony. Lessons drawn from species like this for human society leave a lot to be desired.

But there are still things we can learn from ants about social networks. In a pandemic-ridden world, the desire to understand disease transmission has renewed an already very strong interest in the way that ants deal with outbreaks of disease.

State-of-the art ant research uses sensitive automated cameras that track the movements of individual ants as they move around a designated arena.

Each ant is tracked individually, a process enabled by either marking individuals with codes of coloured paint or, to manage larger numbers, by glueing a very tiny barcode to the back of every ant.

The interactions between hundreds of ants can then be tracked automatically, as computer vision algorithms follow the progress of each ant throughout the course of the experiment, which can run to days or even weeks.

In order to understand the social response of ants to infection, ant colonies are exposed to contagion and their response measured. Through this method, it was found that after detection of a fungal infection in foraging ants, the individuals in the colony adapt their behaviour and social interactions to reduce the closeness of the infected ants from the queen and next generation.

This “social distancing” reduces contact of the infected ants with the most important individuals and protects the ant colony as a whole from being wiped out by the infection.

This work was initially performed on colonies with a queen to protect (the colony depends on the queen, who reproduces all the young). However, similar questions have since been explored in ant species with different social structures.

One particularly interesting case are clonal raider ants, a species in which all ants reproduce, care for young and forage for food. In one recent study, the detection of disease in clonal raider ants prompted other ants to increase their contact with the sick ant, grooming and caring for them.

Rather than pushing sick insects to the edge of the social network, they were brought into the centre of the group. Depending on our own ideals, insights from ants can open the doors to radical reimagination of our future or reinforce the dogmas of current society.

The work to understand these species can be compared to the building of a great cathedral. Whatever use it is eventually put to, the workers that build it demonstrate incredible feats of determination, dedication and mutual support.

The people that do this work contribute to our understanding of the natural world, and through it to ourselves. The work of entomologists is as laborious and painstaking as it has ever been.

For example, thousands of tiny barcodes are glued to the backs of ants individually by the scientists that study them, a task that requires phenomenal endurance. Before any of this happens, the colonies must be kept healthy and safe through constant feeding, cleaning and attention by a whole team of people.

This is the work not of individuals but of groups of people working together to achieve a much greater goal. Without the contributions of every worker, the achievement of these edifices of culture could not be completed.

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