Mind of the Colony

As parents and bloggers, we often run short on time, and so I doubt you will have opportunity to curl up with a copy of Ant Encounters:  Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior, by Deborah M. Gordon any time soon.  She is a researcher at Stanford who has spent a lot of time watching ants.

She has learned that colonies change over time; they mature and develop.  Gordon also works with the Santa Fe Institute where various branches of the sciences are collaborating in a search for human application—in the direction of us humans getting along better and evolving.

Ants are interesting to me, and one of my earliest memories is of being absolutely covered by them when digging in the dirt.  I am two years old, we have just moved to a house and I am happy and unbothered by the ants, in fact I feel serene and connected with them as we dig and hang out together at the base of a tree.  My mom then sees the state that I am in and is horrified, brushing away the ants and then carrying me to the bathtub where all these kind and lovely ants are washed away in a flood of water and mom’s disgust.

One could interpret this early memory as “life is good when…” I am in harmony with nature; while “life is bad when…” mother doesn’t see things the way I see them.  My first desired career was to become an entomologist, and when I read about Deborah Gordon I sense it as the road not taken (and think she could have just as easily spent her time studying human behavior and I studying ants).

Yet I also see how my interest in insects, film, psychology and writing cause my path of reading and exploring to cross her own—and I see that we have some common aims, and we are working our way to some common ground.

According to a BBC Earth News piece by Matt Walker, Ant mega-colony takes over world, the greatest ant colonies on earth—a six hundred mile long one in California, another in the Mediterranean and a third in Japan—all consider each other relatives and will not fight.  The conclusion is that not only is this super-colony demonstrating a domination of the planet to rival humans, but that humans (in taking these originally South American ants all over the place) have made this possible.

Rather than seeing this as sci-fi horror, my intention is to invite a re-think on insects.  I realize that insects disgust many people, but as earnest Oscar Wilde tells us, we must see the beauty in things, other wise we do not begin to see things at all.

As Deborah Gordon writes in her book, “The history of our understanding of ant behavior is the history of our changing views of how organizations work.”  Humans have seen ants as royalists, using the notion of a queen to legitimize monarchy; later humans projected oppression and domination onto the ants’ way of doing things—a big brother reason to fight fascism.

Yet, ant-queens do nothing but lay eggs, they do not let other ants eat cake, nor do mechanistic models of genes, and chemicals explain ant behavior, nor do Darwinian models of pure survival of the fittest.  Ants, it turns out, are super-organisms:  they work together for the group in a way that looks more like love than it looks like being bossed around.

Gordon brings a revising eye to the previous research, and we cannot know if her view of ants is yet another chapter in humans changing in their own self-concept and projecting it onto the ants.  She herself quotes Proverbs 6.6, which precedes all scientific versions of ant-logic, to say:  “Look to the ant, thou sluggard—consider her ways and be wise. Without chief, overseer or ruler, she gathers the harvest in the summer to eat in the winter.”

And this is the big mystery—ants get along, work together neither oppressed nor oppressing, and they do so along highly evolved “dynamical networks of interactions.”  I’ll go no further in attempting to explain what I do not fully grasp.  Suffice it to say that I see a parallel, in our blogging relationships, wherein we are not dominated nor trying to dominate, where we write for love at the same time as we parent and live our lives… that we are feeling like we are all one large family.

The next step is to fold in the idea of unified field:  insects and us as one.  We are not competing with the ants, we are the ants (and they are us).  “We,” (ants, trees, neurons, light and matter) are one evolving consciousness.  We all follow our individual paths, be they science, money, religion, pleasure, sacrifice, parenting, creativity… but I sense that we really will meet in that field beyond right and wrong—Rumi’s field.

As to when this might happen, we keep talking about being in the here and now.  So, cribbing from Einstein, time is a way that we experience ourselves, but it does not ultimately exist—time is no definitive the wayThat is better called Tao—the indefinable ebb and flow of change eternal.

As we expand our consciousness, perhaps we might both live our lives as they “normally” appear to unfold, and at the same time we might trust the urgings of our melancholy, our doubt, our sufferings and our needs to self-express to guide us, absent leaders and followers, absent dogma and oppression or submission, to a consciousness of love and presence to the here and now—to a harmonious oneness with what simply is and has always been.  In this way we awaken to the understanding that we (from ant to kid to neighbor) are all each others’ collective children, brothers, sisters, fellows… as Sly and the Family Stone put it:  “It’s a family affair.”

Namaste, Bruce


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