The lesson of the ants
Sept. 12, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

One sunny September afternoon, Mingo and I were hanging around at Skippy’s place helping him.

When I say “helping,” I mainly mean we were rendering assistance clearing out space in his icebox by drinking some of his beer.

It was one of those rare occasions on which we hadn’t been roped into some sort of physical labor, and instead were free to sit in lawn chairs on Skippy’s patio and talk smart.

Skippy’s wife, Victoria, was out, of course.

Had she been at home, we would likely have found somewhere safer to hang out than under her piercing gaze.

Victoria is a firm believer in that line from Proverbs 16:27 about idle hands being the devil’s workshop, and consequently, any time she sees idle hands, she considers it her duty to find something for them to do.

Hard experience had taught us that, unlike us, Victoria did not consider hoisting pints of beer noble work, nor did she see any humor in our suggestion that it is.

On the afternoon in question, the boys and I were parked on the patio solving the world’s problems.

We got to talking about situations in which people came to grief after wandering away from their friends.

One recent case that had been reported in the news involved a freshman college student who had been at a party and later drowned in a local lake.

We recalled other similar cases in which people had been out with a group of friends, became intoxicated, left alone, and ended up dead.

“Those weren’t very good friends,” Mingo suggested.

“John Lubbock proved back in the 1800s that ants are smarter than some humans when it comes to taking care of their drunken buddies,” Skippy said.

“Who’s John Lubbock?” Mingo inquired.

“Sir John Lubbock was a cat who lived in the 1800s and early 1900s,” Skippy explained. “He was a banker and politician, as well as a talented amateur naturalist. He wrote a bunch of books about archaeology, insects, and animal behavior.”

Mingo considered this.

“What does that have to do with drunken buddies?” Mingo inquired.

Skippy took a thoughtful drink of his beer.

“One of the things at which Lubbock excelled was designing and conducting experiments,” Skippy said. “In one of these experiments, he intoxicated a group of ants with alcohol.”

He paused while we contemplated how one might go about intoxicating ants with alcohol.

“Lubbock found that the sober friends of the intoxicated ants carried nearly all of the intoxicated ants back to the nest where they would be safe to sleep it off,” Skippy continued.

We contemplated this over a sip or two of beer.

“In that respect,” Skippy said, “ants are smarter than we are, or at least their instinct guides them to do the right thing. Where we focus on our own needs, or the needs of the individual, they focus on the needs of the group. Their survival depends on as many of them thriving as possible, so they take care of one another.”

There was silence as we considered Skippy’s hypothesis.

“The ants are smarter than we are,” Mingo agreed, after careful contemplation. “They wouldn’t let their buddies wander out in the cold alone after they had a skinful.”

“Ants appear to be extremely loyal to their friends,” Skippy noted. “To be fair, though, while supporting those in their own community, which might include as many as half a million individuals, the ants in Lubbock’s experiment were much more indifferent when it came to ants from a different group. They nearly always helped ants from their own group, but rarely helped those from another group, and often disposed of them instead. They were just as bad as we are when it came to helping strangers.”

Mingo took a long, thoughtful drink.

“It’s a cruel world,” he commented.

He took another drink, and brightened suddenly.

“At least you don’t have to worry about dying alone,” Mingo said, digging Skippy in the ribs. “Even if by some chance we were to lose you when you were squiffy, your wife would never let you out of her sight long enough for you to get into serious trouble.”

We roared with laughter at the thought of that, Skippy as loud as any of us.

“She’d be on you like ugly on an ape,” Mingo continued, “Waving that list of things she wants you to do and telling you to straighten up. Then she’d grab you by the scruff and drag you back to your duties.”

Mingo, delighted by his own sense of humor, convulsed with laughter.

“By the time old Victoria was done with you, you’d be wishing the other ants would come and haul you back to the nest to sober up,” Mingo said, trying to catch his breath.

Our conversation was cut short by the arrival of a familiar car in the driveway, heralding the arrival of the lady of the house.

We endeavored to act serious. Victoria was not the kind of woman to tolerate insubordination, even when we were discussing important topics such as scientific experiments involving ants.

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