What the “civilization” of insects reveals about ours


In 1921, Marquis – the creator of Archy – wrote a short article imagining what the Martians, looking through their telescopes, might do to us humans as we hover on the Earth’s surface. No doubt they would imagine us as angels or demons, seeing in us only themselves, only their most exaggerated reflections. They would idealize us, as we regularly idealize other animals here on Earth.

Assuming a detached Martian vision, Marquis then wondered how cities were born. The backgrounds are beautiful, but did any of the individual builders work with that final beauty in sight? No: it’s autonomous, unconscious, almost like a termite mound; spontaneous product of nature, almost; forged by “no conscious thought”.

Marquis noted that we are often only encouraged by humanity when we look from such a “distance”. Here we see only the “lights on the high places”, and none of our private failures, bigotry or tribal prejudices. But, he concluded, we must never forget that these “low points” and these “high points” are made of the “same material”. In other words, although individuals invariably have little impact, and are often selfish or stupid, individual actions snowball into civilizations and multigenerational projects, as a million events weave a horizon line. . That’s the thing with coordination; and we humans do this in time as well as in space; across generations, rather than within one.

It’s hard to get an outside view of the human mind, but one thing seems true. In terms of civilization, compared to our fellow arthropods, humanity remains young. Precocious, precarious, often terribly pernicious, but full of potential. Serious perils darken our horizon, demanding immediate and urgent solutions; but protecting the present means building a common future. Probably uniquely, we humans recognize this. If we live up to that quiddity, then, one day, we could be near the start of a saga stretching deep into the future – just like Archy’s illustrious ancestors.

There’s a lot to learn from bugs. But the deeper point is this: History teaches that we shouldn’t be chauvinistic when it comes to the workings of the mind. We should be magnanimous. The agency is certainly not everywhere, but at a time when scientists are studying memory in slime molds and machine learning is producing curious and unanticipated results, it would be hasty to assume our mark of intelligence is near. to exhaust everything a “spirit” can possibly do. be. But, as the minibeasts discovered centuries ago, it’s best to be part of a diverse crowd, in a large church of beings.

Thomas Moynihan is the author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction and researcher at Provident Foundation and St Benets College, University of Oxford. He tweets at @nemocentric and can be found at thomasmoynihan.xyz.

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