Thursday, January 18, 2007

Biophilia -- Part 2

The dark hours of the night here belong to the ants. Tiny sand-colored ants, no larger than a grain of fine sand. They spread out across the floors and countertops looking for crumbs of food or dead insects. Successful scouts carry the intelligence back to the nest and soon a hoard of scavengers is marching to the quarry.

When I turned on the light in the kitchen this morning at six AM, one army of ants was trying to carry home the carcass of a roach. Not a big roach; one of those brownish things about a centimeter long common to the tropics. The problem was to lift the carcass up eight inches of smooth vertical tile to the crack between screen and window jamb where the ants had entered. Never mind that the roach would never fit through the crack; that bit of foresight is beyond their ken.

By the time I had finished my coffee the scurrying throng had risen and fallen back a dozen times, but still they endured. In all of that formicarian frenzy there was not a single mind sharp enough to say, "OK, fellows, this isn't going to work." A few millimeters upward. Fall back. A few millimeters upward. Fall back.

When I returned from my beach walk they were still at it, although with less focus and energy. An hour later, the flurry had subsided to an exhausted milling about. By midmorning the dead roach was abandoned.

I have written about this scenario before. I never tire watching it. And the ants never learn from their experience. Their tiny brains are not without resources, but there is no such thing as cultural learning. Whatever increase in foresight they muster comes with the infinitely slow refinements of natural selection. In the meantime, they will go on repeating the same melancholy drama of bug and crack for as long as I am here to observe it.

And I am here, and I observe. I'm not adverse to killing ants; sometimes I mop up whole armies with a damp sponge. But I never have the heart to interfere with their attempts to carry home some morsel that will never make it through the available exit. There is something sad, and brave, and hopeful about the drama, as if the ants are reenacting for my benefit one tiny chapter in the long saga of evolution that led in the fullness of time to -- me.