Possible human analogues in the animal world abound – the choice for ants and viruses resulted from two unusual conversations I had this week. Perhaps this idea can help guide us out of the extreme environmental crisis we’re in?
Crisis? What Crisis?
The iconic 1975 Supertramp album cover is more relevant now than ever- the world is in an enormous crisis. The Atmosphere is filling up with CO2 and pollutants. The first is causing devastating and lethal climate change, the second is one of the largest causes of death in the world. Oceans are under orchestrated assault: legal and illegal overfishing have made most fish stocks dangerously low, at or near collapse. Pollutants are teaming together: manmade toxins are being absorbed by plastics, to maximum effect: the fish you eat today contains plastics with a cocktail of carcinogens and other manmade poisons. Sea oxygen levels are dropping rapidly due to global warming, and climate change and overfishing are causing lethal acidification. Tipping points galore. Forests are being slaughtered at a devastating rate for meat (soya) and cheap palm oil. Soil and drinking water are being polluted by industrial agriculture and oil- and other industry.
Humanity- A Virus?
People often compare humanity to a parasite. A successful parasite feeds off its host, but ensures pro-creation by selecting a “vector” to move on with; the host must live long enough for this gene-transfer to take place. A virus that kills its host too early must evolve quickly or die out.
While looking at earth and humankind, there are many indication that humanity works like a rather suicidal virus: feeding off and destroying the earth’s resources, including those which create oxygen, food and habitat, and no other planet to go to; killing off the host without a “vector” for survival. Humanity has shown this tendency before.
Seen as a whole the comparison contains points of recognition, yet the vision of humanity as a poorly adapted virus can be disheartening. Would looking at individual critters shed a different light?
Humans as Ants?
Ants are known as the team-workers of the natural world, with devastating destructive powers and a rather excellent self-preservation instinct. While they function individually as seemingly autonomous team workers, they ensure their long term survival through leaders- new queen ants take to the wing when new colonies need starting. There are normally few leaders to a colony of ants, until the request comes around; then some pretty ordinary (female) ants take on the cloak of leadership, and with a little “assistance” start afresh.
Humans are mostly followers: football, tv, car washes, fast food, shopping centres, the job with the boss: they all exist because of a human tendency towards the easy path of “following”. Yet while most humans follow in herds, many have strongly individual characteristics, not always well developed. This lack of development of true individuality –not just a fashion statement- makes historical and evolutionary sense: over previous millennia, as larger societies developed, true leadership needed suppressing: too many captains on a ship ends in mutiny or shipwreck.
In business and industry when we talk about leadership we typically mean “innovative management”: slight changes within a rigorous framework, like worker ants scouting for food. Even the best students of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” win battles through combined rigour and creativity, yet fail to question the choice of enemy itself.
Humans also differ substantially from ants, in the sense that collective action and dispersal can be a positive voluntary choice. A common ideal (e.g. sustainability?) together with an effective organisation by such a “splinter” group is all it takes. The success of such spin-offs depends on social leadership creatively applied, more than on the story-book chief, prince or leader.
Humans – their own species?
Perhaps, like parasites, humans collectively have the tendency to damage their own habitat. Perhaps, more akin to ants, humans also have a latent true leadership ability which, as with ants, comes out only when triggered. Wartime shows both these aspects of human behaviour, following and leading, under slightly different triggers. In times of great uncertainty, before a war, many people follow “strong” populist leaders in an attempt to avoid the crisis, or at least end up on top of the heap when it does arrive. By contrast: once war has broken out, circumstances bring out individual and social leadership in many and so help society make the best of a bad situation.
And What Now?
While war is a sufficiently large crisis to be a good trigger, and our current climate and environmental crisis is a far greater threat than all wars ever fought on our planet together, we still seem to be in the “uncertainty” follower mode rather than rolling up our sleeves to make things better.
Is it possible to move straight to “making the best of the new situation” without the destructive fallout of populist divisiveness and violence while the global situation worsens?
What if all those humans who are capable of questioning the choice of enemy, of seeing the true danger, those who are capable of thinking and acting and leading to great things, would take up the gauntlet thrown down by this global crisis, and take action?
And what if you are one of those humans? What will you do tomorrow?
Referenced statements are uncontentious and widely known; sources listed here are indicative of evidence available, were amongst many used for the article, and mostly easy to access online.