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Rousseau’s state of nature…ant colonies?

November 4, 2010

I recently watched a very fascinating TED talk by Deborah Gordon, who talked about the ant colonies in Arizona that she had been studying for the past 20 years.

Ted talk Deborah Gordon

In this video she reveals some very interesting facts about ant colonies.  The one that surprised me the most is that they have no central control.  There is a queen ant but she does not tell the other ants what to do or delegate who does what.  It is done entirely by each individual ant.  They each have a job to do and they do it every day.  If something were to happen to the nest, such as a bunch of debris blowing onto it, the ants will switch jobs in order to clean the nest up faster.  They forage for food, clean the nest, and take care of the newborns without being told to.  The first thing I thought of when I saw this video was state of nature.  When I read Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men”, I felt that his version of the state of nature in some ways really resembles what the ants do.

Now, obviously, ants do not have quite the mental capacity that humans do.  But they seem to be onto something- they live easy peaceful lives coexisting with each other.  They live in his state of nature without ever needing a leader.  They are not violent, and have no sense of property.  Some animals will fight over food or territory or mates but ants will not fight among each other or with other colonies.  Ants might not have a sense of pity, but they do work for the survival of their species.  They send out a queen bee with several male ants to start new colonies.  These ants also already have that ‘team’ mentality that Rousseau wants people to find.  Everything that they do is focused on the well being of the entire colony.  So what exactly are we doing that makes us seek a leader?  Well, let’s consider this quote from Rousseau:

“But if difficulties…should leave room for dispute on this difference between man and animal, there is another specific quality which distinguishes them and about which there can be no argument: the faculty of self-perfection.”

Perhaps it is this quality that makes it difficult to coexist without a form of leadership.  This and our idea of property may be what separates our ways of living and cooperating from the ant colonies.  What do you think?  Regardless of their intelligence level they have managed to coexist in colonies without any form of leadership or direction.  So intelligence aside, what may enable them to live this way so successfully?

  1. Nick Weeks permalink
    November 4, 2010 11:42 PM

    I agree that the ants might reflect Rousseau’s state of nature. However, their is evidence that ant colonies will actually wage “war” with another apposing any colony of ants of different species or even the same species. This aspect of ant society also could reflect part of the descent out of Rousseau’s state of nature. What stops the ants from leaving completely I think and as you mentioned is the faculty of self-perfection which allowed us to exit totally from the state of nature. So the ants do show a part of Rousseau’s state of nature not all of it.

  2. cwatson872 permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:25 AM

    I think what this illustrates pretty well is the point that Solnit was attempting to make about the state of human nature. If we draw parallels between American society and the ant colonies (queen for president, debris for disasters), we can propose that we as a society will act in the same intentions as these ants. The overwhelming complexity of situations may lead one to believe Hobbes when one examines individual situations that occur when man is placed back into a situation similar to that of the state of nature. However, when looked at more generally, more holistically- such as one would when examining the ants – Solnit’s proposition might ring a little stronger.

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