This passage from the book The Lives of a Cell, first published in 1974 by Lewis Thomas (at one time a Professor of Pediatric Research at the University of Minnesota), compares human organisms to those of ants. In comparing the two from an even different lense, there’s a humorous (or not) result. I can see this modern example of “the one or the many” at the heart of any debate between the extremes of libertarianism and socialism.
Let’s say that Thomas’ solitary ant becomes a modern-day libertarian, one who treasures individual liberty and the government’s protection of that liberty. Then, let’s say that the collective societies that ants form are instead a modern day working class or worker state of humans, like the animated character of Z-4195 (voice of Woody Allen) in the movie ANTZ. “The Hill” (ant hill) that Thomas refers to could be replaced with “Capital Hill,” our center of government in America.
Thomas’ point, at least one, is that ants as individuals are pretty much worthless, but when grouped together into a collective, all working toward the focused goals of “the Hill,” then they become more of an “idea” or a single organism. Contrasting the much older Oriental examples in my last post [ The One and the Many: The Blind Men and the Elephant, plus two ], two of which emphasized “the many” in life as a manifestation of one God or of one Truth, this modern text seems to hint at a wholly secular application: humanity as a manifestation of the State.
Give this short passage a read with that in mind and decide for yourself. –SB
[From: Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. 1974. Bantam, 1975. pp 12, 13.]
“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. . . . They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.
. . . they, and the bees and termites and social wasps, seem to live two kinds of lives: they are individuals, going about the day’s business without much evidence of thought for tomorrow, and they are at the same time component parts, cellular elements, in the huge, writhing, ruminating organism of the Hill, the nest, the hive. . . . collective societies with the capacity to behave like organisms.
A solitary ant, afield, cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind; indeed, with only a few neurons strung together by fibers, he can’t be imagined to have a mind at all, much less a thought. He is more like a ganglion on legs. Four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea. They fumble and shove, gradually moving the food toward the Hill, but as though by blind chance. It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits.”