Socialist Myth Exposed

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Via Arts and Letters Daily is an interesting article by entomologist Deborah Gordon about ant behavior that skewers the ant-colony-as-social-ideal trope cherished by collectivists and other fans of individual sacrifice. More positively, there are valuable lessons with real-world applications to be had from understanding how self-organizing systems like ant colonies actually work.

Understanding how ant colonies actually function means that we have to abandon explanations based on central control. This takes us into difficult and unfamiliar terrain. We are deeply attached to the idea that any system of interacting agents must be organized through hierarchy. Our metaphors for describing the behavior of such systems are permeated with notions of a chain of command. For example, we explain what our bodies do by talking about genes as "blueprints," unvarying instructions passed from an architect to a builder. But we know that instructions from genes constantly change, as genes turn off and on in response to local interactions among cells.
And, later on in the article:
The tension between what we really know about ants -- that no ant directs the behavior of another -- and the familiar metaphors for social organization, permeates not only our stories about ants, but also the scientific study of ants. These contradictions appear in biologist E. O. Wilson's novel Anthill (2010), ...
Of course, this new information will do nothing to deter little dictators from working to transform human society into the kind of paradise they imagine an anthill to be. After all, the desire to shoehorn men into such a society depends in part on ignoring man's nature in the first place.

At best, such utopians will move on to a different metaphor. Why? Because while anyone can see the study of nature as requiring objectivity, too many effectively place man outside nature, exempting such fields as ethics and politics from rational study. Fortunately, I know of at least one thinker who does not make such an error.

-- CAV


Today: (1) Changed "etymologist" to "entomologist." Never trust a spell-checker! (2) Added a hyphen.


Anonymous said...

"(1) Changed "etymologist" to "entomologist." Never trust a spell-checker!"

Yep! Those 6 legged word origins can be a bugger sometimes!

C. Andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Yeah. It all made great sense while I was in the early morning fog, but jumped right out at me the moment I looked at it later.

Anonymous said...

Well, Gus, apparently you're not alone. (Dare we postulate a universal morning fog?) This, from wikipedia...

"Etymologies" redirects here. For the literary works by Isidore of Seville and J. R. R. Tolkien, see Etymologiae and The Etymologies (Tolkien) respectively.
Not to be confused with Entomology, the scientific study of insects, or Etiology, the study of causation or origination.

Gus Van Horn said...

Near universal, maybe. I'm familiar enough with both terms that it's a mistake I'd not ordinarily make.

Ryan said...

I've heard supporters of Capitalism say "Marx was right, but just got the wrong species" referring to ants. However, the article bring up a good point. There is no top down direction. Really, you need free will for the notion of leadership to make sense.

Gus Van Horn said...


I wouldn't go so far as to say that top-down organization is impossible across the board, or even for non-rational species. It certainly doesn't seem to occur in ants (for whom the concept of leadership would not apply even if that kind of organization held).


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, your writing "etymologist" for "entomologist" reminded me of an amusing story. You might remember me telling you about Peter Ladefoged, the great phonetician who, among other things, was the speech consultant for My Fair Lady. A paper of his we had to read in an advanced phonetics course was his presidential address, either of the Linguistic Society of America or of the International Phonetic Association (he served as president of both, but I forget which of these was the occasion for this address), and the informal lore among linguists is that he wrote it on the plane over the Atlantic when he was tired and irritated. He decided to take aim at the view of language as a fully orgnized system in which every part plays a role determined by a few fundamental principles (this is essentially the view of the Chomskyans, but not only them), and to drive home the idea of self-organizing systems in which the structure grows out of individually meaningless, fortuitous elements, he likened language to a termite mound (this surely goes back to his many years doing linguistic research in Africa) in which the tunnels and pillars are placed the way they are not by planning but simply because that's where the termites happened to dump their dung and smooth it over; the places where the dung is less disturbed grow into pillars, while dung in busier lanes of traffic is smoothed over and swept aside. Considered purely abstractly it's a decent enough analogy, but as an actual image to use in a presidential address to a scholarly orgnization as a fit analogy for the subject of their study? Termite dung kinda covers it, yeah.

Gus Van Horn said...

The great thing about having a slightly rusty steel trap for a memory is that from time to time, stories like this one are new once again! I don't remember it, so thanks for re-telling it.