Since writing about E.O. Wilson’s novel Anthill, with its allegations that there are fundamental similarities between people and hive insects, I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past couple of weeks looking at ants. I was on holiday, on one of the less salubrious but more convenient stretches of the Italian seaside, and as the beach was off-limits for much of the time – bad things can happen to five-month-old babies in the midday sun – spent several hours each day in the shade of a mimosa tree, reading books by Maile Meloy (review forthcoming) and watching the lines of ants scurrying across the yard between their nests and such scavengeables as a breadcrumb or a dead wasp, pausing occasionally to exchange pheromones with their colleagues going the other way.
During the evening passeggiata, when almost the entire town would be out on the esplanade, strolling up and down, stopping now and then to buy ice cream or chat with people going the other way, I began to wonder if Wilson maybe had more of a point than I’d allowed him. The superficial resemblance between the ants and the people was hard to miss. (Not very spookily, I’d just read one of Meloy’s stories in which a building site is said to look ‘like a kicked-over anthill’.) But the similarity is only there if you don’t look very closely. Not least because, despite the bullying belief of adaptationists to the contrary, the main point of such activities as wandering about in the evening, or lying on the beach, or sitting in the shade and looking at ants, or writing, reading and reviewing novels, is precisely their aimlessness. Which you can’t say of anything that ants do.
I was finally reassured of Wilson’s wrongness by a large grasshopper that one day came and sat on the fence. If another insect can be that different from an ant, we really don’t need to worry.