Friday, September 28, 2007

Just Like Us, Only Smaller, A Review of Simon King’s Insect Nations: Visions of the Ant World from Kropotkin to Bergson

After recently reading and reviewing two fiction titles from the up and coming British publisher InkerMen Press, I was looking forward to reading something from their nonfiction Axis Series.

I was not disappointed.

Simon King has put together an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of three essays (plus an introduction and a coda) looking at the relationship of human society to ant colonies through the joint lenses of Cultural Entomology and the fiction and nonfiction writing of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the novelist/socialist HG Wells, and the philosopher Henri Bergson, among others.

King’s journey into the social world of the ant began when he received as a gift a modern ant farm, contained in Perspex and filled with a blue-green gel, based on a 2003 NASA experiment.

Along the way, we get everything from philosophy to hard science, to sociological and anthropological considerations examining the influence of the ant’s (perceived) daily condition on that of humans. There is plenty of literary exploration as well. After all, as pointed out by Dr. King, ants appear in the Old Testament and the Koran and are the model for Achilles’ warriors in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King also draws on the likes of Eliot, Conrad, Jules Verne, Blake, Orwell, Ariosto, and DH Lawrence.

I have always found the human propensity to compare our very unique species to everything from ants to the Gods to be telling. The Other is frightening, which assigns it power it might not otherwise have. Either through assimilation, assumption, or annihilation, the Other is then dealt with in tidy and limiting ways. To have value, Cultural Entomology, when considering an insect species’ influence on humankind, would do well to take its cue from Cultural Relativism as originally formulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas (as opposed to its present, corrupted form) and not see the Other in terms of better or worse, but simply as different and of equal worth. This book for the most part, takes that tact.

King considers the more insidious mechanisms of comparison and judgment in the sense of “politicised science—Social Darwinism, eugenics, degenerative and racial theories of all kinds.” There are also numerous references to ants seen as mere machines (think slave labor), evidenced by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory making robot ants an inch and a half long. Ant are seen as mindless, unfeeling masses swarming over the Earth, ruining picnics and contaminating kitchens in their quest to serve the Queen. Of course, throughout history, politicians and war-mongers have categorized dozens of world cultures in much the same terms.

We get thoughts on the condition of anthood/ant-ness from a wide variety of authors: Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (who calls the ant “a profoundly mystical being”), novelist Bernard Werber (who says that “ants are incapable of suffering and this is the basis of their society’s cohesion”), and the authors mentioned above. The brain-hologram work of Karl Pribram (misspelled as Pribaum) and David Bohm is also touched upon.

Werber’s book, Empire of the Ants (1991; which King compares to Watership Down in the sense of anthropomorphized animals) is considered in some detail. Interestingly, one of the characters is named Wells, an homage to HG Wells (who wrote a story of the same name in 1911), who said in War of the Worlds (1898) that you don’t make war on ants, you exterminate them, which certainly smacks (one might imagine) of the private conversations post-9/11 of some right-wing U.S. politicians when considering foreign policy.

It is apt that King’s ant farm was modeled on an outer-space experiment, because he pulls in some writers and works from the field of science fiction as well. There is Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and some of Maeterlinck’s quoted writing brought to mind Sigourney Weaver battling the Queens in the Alien films.

In the first essay, “Renouncing Hobbes: Kropotkin on Ants,” we look at the coldy mechanistic view of Nature espoused by the likes of Thomas Hobbes (such as in the 1651 Leviathan), Newton, and Descartes. And, although he is not mentioned in the book, Francis Bacon certainly applies. Hobbes’ works have been co-opted (much like Boas’) in the name of social and political realism, something all too evident in the numerous “non-partisan” foreign policy journals put out by think tanks that take their cue from such political theorists as Hans Morgenthau. This very Hobbesian notion that war and violence (and, on a far larger scale, the mere threat of them) are inevitable and can be used to keep societies in line (consider “shock and awe” in modern times) is overthrown by Kropotkin who said in 1902: ants have “renounced the Hobbesian war and they are the better for it.” Although I have to wonder at ants making a conscious choice to not engage in war (I think they are probably, like most of the rest of the animal kingdom, not genetically designed for it, which seems to be in line with Maeterlinck’s saying ants are a holy order who have taken a vow of poverty—they simply are not “strong” enough to riser higher on the food chain), Kropotkin was giving human society an alternative model (although he does admit that ant communities make war on others, and King quotes some stirring examples of ant wars being likened to World War I trench warfare). Kropotkin, along with Werber, believed that ants were nation-builders, just like humans. The message appears to be: if you build a nation, you sure as hell have to defend it.

The second essay, “The Ant Invasion: Wells on Ants,” begins with an analysis of ant-like warriors in a 1964 episode of Doctor Who, which King says “seems to anticipate Czechoslovakia in 1968.” He then moves to the appearance of ants in the work of Salvatore Dali and other Surrealists. Wells is the key focus of this essay, however, and there is a discussion of his 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads.” Dr. King discusses Wells’ interest in Eugenics (a subject I have looked at in my fiction writing), the essence of which I have always found clearest in his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are some excellent biological explorations in this essay as well.

The third essay, “Coming to Consciousness: Bergson on Ants,” looks at several important considerations concerning the differences between ants and humans (and other species as well), such as the lack of autonomy in the ant and the author’s understandable observation that ants “are not dogs and cats” and cannot be bonded with in the same way. This last notion brings to mind a bit by the comedian Denis Leary where he talks about humans only wanting to save “cute” animals like seals and dolphins and being utterly cold and brutal when it comes to turning cows into baseball mitts and leather jackets. Ants, it is pointed out in this book, don’t have faces, so, despite what Maeterlinck purports—that their lives are barely divided by our own—the distance between us is far greater than he would like.

I highly recommend taking the time to carefully consider Bergson’s ideas on wholeness and the true nature of the falsely dual tracks of intelligence and instinct. This point of view—which led Betrand Russell to condemn Bergson for being a metaphysician (as if this is somehow a bad thing)—is now gaining greater steam over the mechanistic because of quantum physics. I say, it’s about time. The nexus of thought and feeling, science and spirituality, form and function could take us out of our own mundane ant-like lives and into a richer, fuller experience of the Universe.

The book ends with a Coda discussing such animated films as Antz (I have always thought casting Woody Allen as a neurotic, against-the-grain ant was a stroke of brilliance), A Bug’s Life, and last year’s The Ant Bully.

Insect Nations is a book I will go back to over and over in the course of my own writing, research, and consideration of life’s larger issues.

I look forward to reading more books in the Inkermen Press Axis Series and applaud Dr. King for this very interesting and thought-provoking work.

For ordering information and to learn about InkerMen Press and their talented authors, go to and contact them at or befriend them at

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