By E. A. Costa (June '09)
At the root of culture is a metaphor likening society to a tended field in which crops are tilled and animals bred.
Ants are highly organized socially and some species not only cultivate fungi but breed and milk aphids.
How this originated is not known.
One presumes ants did not begin with such advanced techniques. The social instinct, on the other hand, may be genetic.
In any instance there seems to be change over long eons even when the only controlling elements, so far as one can see, are genetic and instinctual.
Do ants have culture in the human sense?
Young children grow into less young children intertwined with the world around them, whatever that world happens to be. It is not separate from them. It is a part of their mental and spiritual growth and of their molecular structure.
To make mention of Massachusetts, for example, will be most commonly taken as a mention of Massachusetts now, whenever now happens to be. Massachusetts then, on the other hand, may mean any number of things not at all obvious without reference to time, space, and context.
What is the last time one looked a bedroom suburb of Boston was, at one time, the largest political unit in the world still run by town meeting.
Railroad tracks ran through the small downtown.
A campaigning Adlai Stevenson, stranger from faraway Illinois, came through and spoke to a large crowd from the back of a train.
The automobile was already dominant but there were still a few horse-drawn vehicles. The rag man, for example, went from door to door in a horse-drawn cart with pneumatic tires buying rags that he sold to be made into fine paper. The knife-sharpener also went door to door sharpening knives. He had just switched from a horse-drawn wagon to a small white panel truck, as one recalls.
That is the then, and it is not as long ago as it sounds.
Space is wood-frame houses clustered close to the town center, with much surrounding woods and many ponds. In the Midwest they would call the woods stands of timber.
There were also small farms with stone walls between the small rocky fields.
Five miles through woods from the town center there was the colonial cemetery of a miniscule New England village. The first dated tombstone was slate. The marker read “John Death.”
The cemetery was surrounded by a wrought iron gate. It was in the middle of the timber off a narrow paved road. There was not a house in sight. In the forest in Fall to a child given to long secret walks alone the foliage and air were quiet and electric at the same time.
That is the where, and it is not as far away as it sounds.
The context is a volume the title of which one cannot remember in the hall bookcase. It was well printed and sturdily bound and was an anthology of some sort. In it cheek by jowl stood a short excerpt from Homer’s Iliad and one from Thoreau’s Walden titled—by the anthologist, as one realizes now—“The Ant War.”
Given that one is not an ant, nor a participant in the language and literature of ants, in order to attribute ants culture—as opposed to agriculture, which they have apparently given themselves—one can only apply the metaphor of the cultivated field externally.
Who can say whether ants themselves employ the metaphor, that is, that what they do together and how they change over time is analogous to tending fields or breeding other insects?
If, on the other hand, human society too is more or less genetics and instinct, the thrust of the metaphor is illusory and the point becomes moot.
It is also moot whether ants engage in war according to any human definition of the term, whatever the human definition might be. That they do have battles has been recorded by a long line of human observers, including Henry David Thoreau:
I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum.
It is no surprise that a young child, just beginning extensive reading, would not immediately understand the cryptotype of the Indian wars in the ants’ battle of colors or, before any Latin, follow the fine point, including hidden etymological learning, between duel—duellum—and war—bellum.
The contending attracted immediate attention, on the other hand, and the sudden surprise of first being treated to a duel, man to man, and in the next sentence having it evinced as but a trivial part of a much vaster conflict.
Too, this was long before the child had seen an ant war of his very own, which the child stumbled upon on the concrete slab at the bottom of the backstairs porch many years afterward.
Even here questions occur in retrospect.
Concede that ants do battle, do they really duel, one on one? In other words, are they individual enough to be spoken of as fighting one to one except by accident and to an external observer like Thoreau, and as a metaphor of what he first saw, and which a wider glance immediately turned into war?
The excerpt from Homer was only cursorily read by the child. Was it the parting scene of Hector and Andromache, who, still unfound by her husband, in Pope’s translation:
…stood on Ilion's towery height,
Beheld the war, and sicken'd at the sight;
One cannot clearly remember much from that first reading beyond the image of man and woman on Trojan walls talking, speaking in strange English and naming unfamiliar names.
To the child Thoreau and his ants were much more striking, both to eyes and memory.
For years afterward he gobbled up anything he could find on ants, fiction and non-fiction, including Eric North’s The Ant Men, a pulp novel with a still striking cover etched in memory.
North’s ants, dated to the mid-1950’s, were six feet tall, walked upright, had language, cities, organized armies, and “devised weapons that could destroy all mankind.”
Curiously enough, they also had only four legs, or, more precisely, two legs and two arms.
It never occurred to the child that they were anything but giant ants, or that in the terror they inspired they reflected the new atomic age and near universal fear of nuclear holocaust.
In non-fiction the biggest surprise, even for pre-pubescent, was that most ants were not male, as any child would expect well-armored warriors to be, but neuter females, any one of which might, if the necessity arose, turn into breeding queen.
In fact, it turned out, both males and queens were winged as well as six-legged. But the only flight was pure mating ritual, in which an unfertilized winged queen was pursued by hordes of winged males, to be inseminated by one, come crashing down, and then breed the rest of her egg-laying life.
And the males—what was the fate of both the successful male and the horde of failures? To return to the anthill for a warm winter and another try? On the contrary, all soon died—of exhaustion?—after the mating flight.
The child stumbled into one mating flight of ants on a summer’s day.
He noticed a strange winged insect he had never seen before bumbling on the concrete of the driveway by the garage. He looked more closely and saw that it was in all respects very much like a black ant, except it had wings.
Two and two make four—was not this an exhausted male after a mating flight? He scanned the air closely and discovered the flight was still in progress, a horde of males after the queen in a long arc in front of the garage.
Had he not seen the defunct male on the pavement it is very unlikely he would have seen the flight, or, seeing it, have been able to identify it for what it was.
Later he got a much closer look at an ant queen and the inside of the nest.
The child’s own ant war was a few years later.
He was sitting on the bottom step of the back porch when he looked down and saw a long battle line, perhaps three feet long, of red and black ants on the pavement. The line was literally seething with combat.
Curiously enough, knowing more of the Iliad then, the sight struck him as much more like a passage of Homer than of Thoreau’s little essay.
The red ants were rushing in long lines from under the stairs, seemingly to defend themselves from the onrush of masses of black ants coming out of the grass from left and right. Without Thoreau’s looking glass he could make out little of the hand-to-hand gore and mutilation as both armies rushed into the pile that defined the line.
The most riveting aspect was the way the line grew longer over time, wriggling like a serpent, now the red ants pushing the black back, then the black ants on the flanks turning the line into a crescent, bodies strewn over the ground.
This was not the duello of Hector and Achilles but the mass rush of common soldiers at one another, mimicking battle as a matter of physics, with force and momentum in the bodies of the massed warriors.
What had set them off? As he found out much later, no longer a child, probably the pressure of overpopulation leading to competition for food in disputed territory.
The war lasted longer than a young boy’s attention could bear.
He cannot remember how it ended. Did he just pick up and leave or viciously scatter the viciously fighting and dying masses with his foot?
Was this not how the Olympians from far above viewed the massed battles before Troy?
For days he talked of seeing an ant war, just as in Homer or Thoreau, with no one that he can recall displaying more than passing interest.
Until recently that human beings walk upright and talk would have been considered strictly genetic and instinctive by many.
There are now known many exceptions to walking upright, including feral children who walk on all fours or, because raised by dogs, bark instead of talk.
This suggests the degree to which individual behavior is learned by imitation.
Imitation is a handing over from one to another. If one walks upright only because one is imitating others who walk thus, then even something as basic as bipedal motion is cultural in a certain sense.
A dispassionate look at human physiology, on the other hand, surely establishes there is a genetic disposition toward walking upright on two legs. If nothing else, the physiology of the foot would tell one as much. It looks much more carefully evolved to bear weight than to do needlework or hold infants at the breast while standing or walking.
Even there, however, there are known cases of human beings, born armless, who have learned to do an enormous number of highly skilled activities with their feet, including putting food or foot in mouth, and even typing.
At the other end, there are known cases of dogs, bears, and chimpanzees trained to walk on their hind legs as their main form of locomotion. As far as is known, however, there is no such case with ants, who are, on the contrary, sometimes seen to rear up on four legs.
Culture is synchronic, tradition diachronic. There is nothing new in saying this. Combining the two in another easy cliché, one might say that culture is the whole way of collective behavior of some society or tribe or hive or ant hill over an extended present while tradition is the mode in which such culture is handed down over time.
In fact, “handing over” or “handing down” is the root meaning of the word in Latin, tradere, from which the English “tradition” is derived. Interestingly enough, tradere itself seems to be a combination of the roots trans—“across”—and dare, “to give”.
The word tradition, along with most human language, is also handed down. In that sense, the word “tradition” also counts as a tradition. It is thus, as the logicians have it, autological—that is, its meaning and reference include itself both as word and as sense and meaning.
Tradition is giving across time. The elemental signification says to the future, “Look back, we have something to tell you.”
At this point, one might be tempted to distinguish between giving across time and giving across space, which space is by definition seemingly contemporaneous.
Is war and devising weapons that could destroy all mankind any less instinctual among men than battling over food among different tribes and clans of ants, real and fictional?
To return to the ants, the behavior they might be considered to learn from one another, by imitation, is a giving across space, from one or more ants to one or more other ants, while what is given across time, from generation to generation, is tradition, even if it is strictly genetic and instinctual.
How is handed down what is destructive to those upon whom the gift is bestowed?
Given enough time, the question takes care of itself.
A truly destructive tradition eventually destroys its inheritors, thus also destroys itself as a word and a tradition, as well as even the possibility of any further handing down.
This does not mean that any and all tradition is either good or necessary. All it means is that tradition, insofar as it still exists and is handed down, whether genetically and instinctually by ants—or culturally and symbolically by men—has not yet committed suicide.
If and when it does, who will be left to know?
The child grown into youth and still occasionally visiting cemeteries made another discovery.
Someone suggested to him, hearing of the "John Death" he discovered in the village cemetery, that there may not have been anyone at all under the stone, but that it was simply the first, morbidly mordant tombstone erected--idiosyncratically or conventionally--by New England colonials to christen, so to say, a brand new burial ground.