Thomas Jones · Ant-Watching

This is not an ant

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 passaggietta, 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.


  • 19 July 2010 at 12:03pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I keep imagining a sequel where you return to the same town the following winter, only to discover that the locals are all broke because they spent so much time wandering aimlessly up and down. But I think the word's passeggiata - a passaggietta would be a ginnel, twitten or small alleyway. (Which do exist in Italy, although I'm not claiming that they're actually known by that word. Once in Amalfi I even saw a lemony snicket.)

  • 19 July 2010 at 12:57pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I really enjoyed your review of Anthill. I couldn't decide if I should read the book, though.

    Although they're scary en masse, I love some of the anthropomorphic moments you see around anthills. Sometimes you'll see an ant hurrying off for something only to pause or stop or even turn back, just as I often do myself.

  • 19 July 2010 at 4:12pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    You be careful of those ants! The grasshopper looks quite dangerous, but look out for the lizards. A lizard nce came up and stole my Ciappata (well a few crumbs anyway) after looking me over with eyes like a bag snatcher in Leicester Square.

  • 20 July 2010 at 5:29am
    Joe Morison says:
    As ants don't, and couldn't possibly, know that their actions are purposeful, how does TJ know that the human activities he mentions aren't?

    • 20 July 2010 at 10:09am
      Jenny Diski says: @ Joe Morison
      Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, "See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!" Hui Tzu said, "You're not a fish - how do you know what fish enjoy?" Chuang Tzu said, "You're not I, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?" Hui Tzu said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish - so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!" Chuang Tzu said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy - so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.

      (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York, 1968)

    • 20 July 2010 at 12:06pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Jenny Diski
      Two mirrors face the river reflecting what they see, they turn to each other and language breaks down till one sets them free: "We reflect the river and we speak what we see".

    • 20 July 2010 at 3:38pm
      outofdate says: @ Joe Morison
      YANG SHENG: I really cannot tolerate the surroundings and the atmosphere. Can I ask General for what offenses these souls are sent here to be punished?

      JIGONG: When these souls were human beings on Earth they were:
      1. Prostitutes and earn money by selling their bodies
      2. Pimps who cheated girls and seduced them to be prostitutes
      3. Smugglers and confidence tricksters
      4. Those who used placenta of new born babies as tonic for health and rejuvenation
      5. Swindlers and cheats
      6. Womanisers
      7. Bodyguards of, and gangsters
      8. Defaultered tontine heads
      9. Deliberate bankrupts
      10. Bribery officials
      11. Unscupulous building contractors

      (Yang Sheng, Journey no. 11, Moon 3rd Day, trs. Lee Teik Chong, courtesy Steve Hands)

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