Rousseau’s state of nature…ant colonies?
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.
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?