Seriously. No, Seriously.

A blank white computer screen often summons me to fill it with what’s on my mind. That is, essentially, it beckons me to transfer what I’m thinking to the screen. That allows my thoughts to be read by others who come across what once was a blank screen. Have you ever considered that, by writing what you’re thinking about, you are giving other people the wherewithal to read your mind? We’re all mind readers, then, aren’t we? And we’re all distributors of unsolicited ideas by virtue of the fact that we’re writing about ideas that readers may not have asked us to share.

We think we’re so damn smart, what with our ability to transform our thoughts into symbols that at least some others of our species can interpret. We think we’re so damn advanced, with our enormous brains that process information in admittedly stunning ways at speeds faster than lightning strikes. But our sense of superiority is misplaced. I suspect we do not compare favorably with ants, for example, when it comes to the ratio of the volume of information we transfer to body weight. Think about it. Ants are tiny creatures who weight is almost negligible. How much do they weigh? According to Father Google, ants weigh on average between 1 and 5 milligrams. The Father goes on to say that a 175-pound person’s weight translates into 7.938e+7 milligrams. I don’t even know how to conceive of that number, but I would be willing to place money on the fact that ants transfer more information to one another, by weight, that we humans do. Seriously. And we claim superiority?

If you’ve ever watched a parade of ants stream back and forth between a source of food and a hole in the ground or in a wall that leads to a colony (I assume), you will have noticed that many of them stop briefly (like a fraction of a millisecond) when they encounter other ants. I believe that, in that tiny window of time, they are transferring vast amounts of information about the food source:

“It’s processed cane sugar; not particularly high quality, but it will do as a reserve food supply during Spring floods. To reach it, head east-northeast for approximately 2,100 ant-steps, veer slightly north at the rotting blade of St. Augustine grass, and go another 1,400 ant-steps. You’ll reach a piece of leather, probably from a discarded dog toy, where you’ll take a sharp left. The sugar is approximately 300 ant-steps ahead. Be careful when you get there; the sugar is leaking, usually a few grains at a time, from an overhead sack sitting on the edge of a chair. If you don’t watch out, though, you can be inundated when the occasional flood of sugar spills from the sack.”

I have to assume, too, that the millions of ants that we see stream back and forth know which of the other ants they’ve already communicated with. They must have an ability to identify one another, in spite of their incredible similarities. We humans might think they know one another by name, but the sheer number of ants would make it impossible, it seems to me, for them to have enough unique names to label one another, much less remember one another. So, it’s my guess that they have a far advanced means of individual identification. Perhaps each encounter with another ant triggers a mechanism that says, in effect, “we’ve met, we exchanged information on food source number 4344433234989976, and you can reach me in-colony at ant-location g45a#74Y.” This information exchange, while automatic, would have derived from purposive, thought-based, communication.

The suggestion that these obvious communications between individual members of ant colonies is purely a matter of “instinct” or some other such “act of nature” process is utter nonsense. Ants obviously have incredibly advanced communication skills. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least to learn that some of the ants we never see are incredibly talented writers who turn out the ant-equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace with some regularity. And mathematicians. They must use extremely advanced math to orchestrate the movements of so many ants; their frenzied dances simply cannot be random motions.

In describing the communication and movements of ants I have used terms applicable to humans; it’s the only way I can communicate my thoughts. In other words, I have assigned anthropomorphic attributes to non-human creatures. That’s so damn primitive! We tend to do that because we are incapable of truly understanding what goes on with ants and birds and even dogs. We understand them only to the extent that our big, flummox brains allow it. It’s embarrassing being human in a world flush with highly advanced creatures whose understanding of the world is so much more advanced than our own.

While I’ve written this mostly as an exercise in humor, I believe we underestimate the level of sophistication of almost all other creatures on the planet. I think we put too much emphasis on “brain power” and not enough on processes of life we simply do not understand. I think ants can “think,” though my idea of thought may not be sufficiently advanced to allow me to truly know how ants (and other creatures) engage with the world around them.

It’s now 5:40 on Thanksgiving Day. Once again, I arose around 3:00 and have been piddling around since then (and writing, obviously). I was going to post a Thanksgiving Day screed, the majority of which I wrote last night, but I decided against it; it was not particularly uplifting. But I may post it another time, anyway. I’ll have to edit it, though, because it is written in the present tense.

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone and everyone who reads these words. I’m grateful to be alive for the moment. And I have more for which to be grateful. And I’m grateful for that.

 

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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