Clark Thomas Carlton: Let’s Not Be Like Ants

To coincide with the March for Science tomorrow (during which I will sadly be in the air, on a plane), Harper Voyager is having some of its authors talk about science and politics, and one of those authors is Clark Thomas Carlton, who has written his own spin on an ant novel, Prophets of the Ghost Ants. Here are some of his thoughts on ants, science, and politics for the Harper Voyager Science Fair!

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The Bible tells us, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” But let’s not be like ants this Earth Day. Or any other day.

Ants and humans are the only two animals on the planet to engage in warfare according to myrmecologist Mark W. Moffett. Other animals may fight, skirmish or even kill each other, but only antkind and humankind organize into armies of hundreds, thousands or even millions to battle for a decisive outcome. Both are hardwired to aggressively expand their territories and mark their borders with materials. And both live in settlements — ants live in nests and humans live in villages, towns and cities. According to Dr. E.O. Wilson, the Second Darwin, the adaption of settlement life led to a subsequent division of labor which is part of why humans and ants go to war — the former send mostly young men into battle and the latter send their “old ladies.”

Humans and ants make warfare for all the same reasons — to expand or defend their territories and to bring back food and other resources. Some ants, like humans, war to take slaves. The end result of wars is that the victors maximize their reproduction and, by extension, the replication of their genes. Close to 14,000 documented species of ants make up about ten percent of the terrestrial biomass which makes the ant a very successful animal. Homo sapiens, another very successful animal, have also improved their survivability by evolving into a warrior species with cooperating individuals. Our desire to use ever better weapons in our wars has always been an essential part of improving our technology. In taking us from metal tipped spears to the hydrogen bomb, we have created other wonders along the way as diverse as cotton gins, popsicles and cars.

As a result of our ability to adapt to different environments, seven billion of our successful human selves have spread to almost every part of the planet and brought our fires, our combustible engines and our coal burning power plants. The result of this expansion and its companion technologies is that we have filled our atmosphere with more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide which has initiated a global warming. That’s not news, of course, but some still insist that climate change is a hoax. A very simple experiment can be conducted in a home laboratory to show that ice will melt faster in a heated glass box with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in its air. The ice will melt even faster in a box mixed with methane, a gas all of us create daily at both ends of our digestive tracks. Methane is being released in alarming amounts as the permafrost in Siberia melts.

Rising temperatures are not a real threat to Planet Earth, which will remain in some form. The threat is to the billions of humans who live here now and, even more so, to their immediate descendants. In the Anthropocene Era, we are plunging headlong into an epoch of mass displacement and famine. The end result will be unending civil and international wars. The casualties of these conflicts will dwarf the numbers lost in World Wars 1 and 2. The end of the 21st century may mean a complete redrawing of the global map —

If maps are going to be drawn at all.

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Due to the arcane nature of something called The Electoral College, the infrequent occupant of the Oval Office is a member of the subspecies homo golf cursus. The Putter-in-Chief has called the crisis of climate change a “hoax created by the Chinese.” This is the worst possible leader that we need at this time, a bad hombre who gives into his every selfish impulse including extramarital exploits. Part of his personal expansion is a business empire, which includes buildings that mark his turf, and even more flagrantly, golf courses where a sport is played that is the most territorial of all pastimes. Golfing alpha males carry sophisticated versions of the caveman’s clubs as they roam an oversized lawn that is not cultivated for food or housing but for a trivial contest played by members only. Golf courses may be repurposed by global warming yet.

A recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey predicts that as many as one billion people living on the coasts are threatened by the rise of sea levels due to melting ice sheets and the polar ice caps. After Miami, Guangzhou and Mumbai become uninhabitable, their citizens will not sacrifice themselves for the greater good and submit to drowning. They will push into dry areas. Fleeing humans won’t be allowed on to arable farmland which will be under stress to feed a burgeoning population of humans. The dislocated could end up squatting on golf courses, among other places, where they will build shanty towns, drink from the water traps and scrounge for squirrels and slaughter the swans. The ants will join them and in a desperate measure to feed themselves, the displaced humans will make like chimps and dip twigs into anthills in order to eat them.

Scientists tell us it’s unlikely the Earth will ever become a kind of Water World — at least not for the next two billion years. But the coming disruption to life as we know it cannot help but end in struggle, disease and war. It may result in a divergence in our species with the rise of homo survivalus. They would be descended from humans with enlarged amygdalae and its associated paranoia that forced them to flee the cities for isolated locations where they have stored their guns and ammunition and a few years supply of food. Homo survivalus won’t be defending his food and territory from homo chardonnayus, the rich liberals living inside the East and West Coast Bubbles. The Bubbleites will have retreated to their second homes in the mountains of Aspen and Stowe. Homo survivalus will be aiming his gun at the masses of poor and homeless who will break down his fences in search of something to eat and a place to lay their weary heads.

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In California where I live, it has been decades since I have seen any of our native carpenter and harvester ants. The only ants we ever see anymore are invaders: Argentine ants and the red imported fire ant. How they got here is not completely known but it was not a plot they thought up — ants are terribly limited in their thinking abilities. They have no culture, no morality, and do not make choices about how and where to reproduce. Ants can’t help but to create new colonies and can’t help but to defend their nests. They can’t resist attacking other ant nests in order to destroy them, eat their larvae for lunch and then assume their territory.

Most ants not only attack other species of ants but will attack rivals of their own species whose scents differ by a few molecules. The Argentine ant is one of the exceptions. As tiny as their worker/soldiers are, they have become the most dominant player in our state, with a massive supercolony extending from Mexico to San Francisco. Their uncountable trillions of ants in millions of different colonies accept each other as kin and their millions of egg laying queens maintain a chemical truce. The Argentines have won billions of wars with an unstoppable army.

In order to make war, humans have to “otherize” the enemy. We view other groups as lesser and different due to cultural and physical differences that have developed, mostly, in geographic isolation. But we are all the same species or we couldn’t interbreed. The establishment of the United Nations was an attempt to come together as a single human tribe and end any more wars. More recently, the U.N. took an official position on global warming as an extension of this goal: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Most of the developed and educated nations of the world are accepting their responsibility for a changed climate and most are working to reduce their carbon footprints. But for the first time, these progressive nations are looking at the United States as something of The Other — as a nation falling backwards, committed to a willful ignorance and using the fictions of religious scripture to justify our abuse of the planet. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners “It is my devout belief in God that gives me every bit of confidence that man is not destroying — and furthermore, cannot — destroy the climate.” The wealthiest nation in the world that once put a man on the moon has allowed an incurious, inept opportunist to become its leader. Our president is a climate change denier whose endless greed has cheated thousands out of their money in order to fly in his jumbo jet to his different golf courses.

Our planet is being ruined by those of us who fail to hold back on our natural impulses, who want to win, win, win without regards to consequences. Unlike the ants, we can overcome our innate instincts and can moderate our behavior — we can do the right thing for our human family of seven billion and growing. Part of the right thing means limiting the number of our offspring and making better choices as consumers. We can invest in an array of solar panels, choose an electric car over a Cadillac Escalade, or buy a sailboat instead of a powerboat. We can give up meat and take public transportation. We can solve any so-called housing crises not by building more houses and destroying more forests but by having fewer children. We can maintain a habitable, peaceful and beautifully diverse planet by choosing the welfare of the global tribe over the pleasures and power lust of a few individuals.

Ants will never change their ways — they can’t be talked out of their next war of expansion or reproductive rate. Humans will never get over our natural impulses to conquer and subdue but we can choose not to express them. Instead of acting on our impulses, we can sublimate them through violent, smutty novels, movies and television, video games, chess and checkers. We can indulge our desire to battle by watching or playing sports where “tribes” or individual “warriors” represent different settlements and engage in a substitute for combat. One of those “sports” can be played by people well into old age: so if you have to, go play some fucking golf.

See you on the links.

Clark T. Carlton is a journalist, screen and television writer and an award winning playwright and novelist. He was born in the South, grew up in the East, went to school in the North, and lives with his family in the West. As a child he spent hours observing ants and their wars and pondered their similarity to human societies.

Prophets of the Ghost Ants: Amazon | Harper Voyager