Ants & Democracy

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2012

I will be showing my Democratic Workplace class the NOVA DVD, “Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World.” The DVD features Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s research and was produced in the mid to late 90s. I’m using it to augment our class’ discussion of complex systems and how leaderless, self-organizing units work together to achieve group results.
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Caption: Leaf-cutter ants laden with food for the nest*.
According to Dr. Wilson humans have an inherent weakness: we emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. The final scenes of the DVD show a despoiled earth, all human life extinct. But as the camera zooms in, we see ants zipping around and through the concrete debris and metallic detritus of what used to be civilization. The ants win, continuing their 100 million year run of biological success! Clearly Dr. Wilson (or NOVA) thinks that the ants’ cooperation and seemingly selfless way of life (or, as the script has it anthropomorphically: “selfless devotion”) is vastly superior to mankind’s tendency toward selfish behavior. If we extend to the workplace the viewpoint that individual needs trump those of the group, it suggests that man is largely incapable of cooperating or collaborating. I expect that devout fans of the hierarchy are nodding vigorously in agreement. “I told you so! If humans are to accomplish anything, they need direction, the firmer the better.” (These same advocates for limiting personal freedom, of course, always exempts themselves from the coercive and necessary guidance for the masses.)
Unlike ants, humans are imbued (divinely or over time through evoution) with freedom and the capacity to make choices (bad and good), to decide for themselves. Also, we have the unique attribute of language to argue for and explain our choices.
The critics hold that if we got rid of choice, we could have a cooperative society and be better off. Charles Handy, in writing about the concept of subsidiarity, says this re individual freedom: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege, although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”**
Actually, humans do cooperate, just not consistently. (Chapter 23, "Sacred Teams", in the book, is especially relevant to humans cooperating. It has my observations about the Semana Santa processions in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.)
Is this inconsistency in cooperating a fatal weakness for our kind? I’ll ask the class, “Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways? Does taking away a worker’s elbow-room for making decisions eliminate democracy in the workplace?

*While hiking in Costa Rica in early November, I observed, close-up, long lines of leaf-cutter ants, burdened with freshly cut leaf segments, hurrying across rocks, rutted earth, fallen tree limbs – nothing could stop their march back to the nest. The DVD confirms that the harvest does not kill the trees. New leaves will soon grow back for another bountiful harvest.

**Handy, Charles. “Subsidiarity Is the Word for It.” Across the Board (magazine); June, 1999, 36: 7-8.


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Comments

Posted by Miriam & Steve Holley on December 19, 2012  •  15:27:33

Dear John....Steve and I both read this blog....
We have seen and know the NOVA program on ants....a very good show.
We wonder if you have read or know of Sam Harris who maintains "There is no such thing as free will." hence your premise that we are imbued with the ability to make independent choices may be skewed. Furthermore, without cooperation, nothing can be accomplished. Remember a recent comment that was misinterpreted that went something like this.....
"You didn't build that." this actually meant that many people before you contributed their efforts to make your success possible.
Individual creativity sometimes needs group participation to become reality. Do you believe that the workplace is a democratic setting? Or are workers supposed to fulfill a task with no questions asked? We feel that suggestions that improve production are needed. Think of the ant that finds a shorter route to the nest. If our any goal is to get food...perhaps behaving like ants is good.
Good luck with your course. Miriam and Steve

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2012  •  17:14:52

I need tequila!

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