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28 february 2011

The great French scientist Réaumur said of ants "we have for them none of those aversions that are frequently entertained towards so many other insects" (7). Réaumur had clearly never been to Texas. Though of course when he was writing, over 200 years ago, fire ants hadn't been here yet, either. Réaumur's comment, quoted at the beginning of Charlotte Sleigh's wonderful book Ant, stands on one side of a temperate/tropical divide that has formed the Western world's attitude toward ants. Cheerful movers of rubber-tree plants, or faceless horde menace? You decide; but you probably can't, because ants are inevitably both at once.

One of my favorite of the Grimm brothers's tales is "Die weisse Schlange," where a young man eats some of the magical title creature (the white snake) and is given the gift of knowing the languages of all animals. When he forbears to crush some ants, the King of the Ants vows loyalty to him. When will ants ever be able to help me, our hero wonders. But later, when for some fairy-tale reason he's forced by a blocking character to separate the wheat from the barley in a big pile of mixed grains, the lad finds that for ants, such sorting is a doddle.

I grew up in Illinois, where ants were among the least harmful things in the world outside the apartment, and not much to panic about when they'd wander in. But my childhood reading was full of stories about kids in tropical climes who were in everyday danger of being stripped from their skeletons by army ants. One particular story I still recall (the story, not the author or title) with horror concerned a boy in a wheelchair, caught between a river full of piranha and a forest full of advancing army ants. How this fellow escaped his predicament I don't remember, but he spent many pages diverting the ants and avoiding the piranha till the whole game went bust. By contrast, the streets of Chicago seemed totally unterrifying, which was perhaps the point behind the circulation of such stories.

Good ant, bad ant: we learn young that there's no stable value for this creature. Ants in themselves are as wonderful as their literature. Charlotte Sleigh spends a chapter of Ant recapping the current scientific understanding of the many species (and literally myriad individuals) of the ant world. But as with most of the Reaktion Books Animal series titles, Ant is largely taken up with cultural constructions of the animal in question. Ants are as ambiguous in adult culture as in children's literature. They can stand for royalist hierarchy or for socialist anarchy. They stand less well for unbridled capitalism, but as individuals, their industry is emblematic; the heroes of Horatio Alger stories are firmly on the side of the ant, not the grasshopper. Ants are the originals of robots, inspiring Karl Čapek to write R.U.R. And in a life-imitates-art-imitating-life way, many real-life robots are now designed on formic principles. The "hive mind" is perfectly adapted to solving novel problems – no one ant, like no one nano-robot, is particularly smart, but hundreds of thousands of them reinforcing one another's slight successes can find their way through a maze as well as a higher mind like a rat or a goldfish.

Even the most rarefied regions of ant science mirror the popular ambivalence about ants. (Or did eight years ago; Ant is one of the earliest titles in a series I'm catching up to very late in the game.) E.O. Wilson sees ants as innately devoted to specialized tasks within the anthill economy; Deborah Gordon, a fierce critic of Wilson's, sees each individual ant as a flexible generalist. At this point Charlotte Sleigh invokes philosopher Bruno Latour, saying in effect that the ant is what it is, and will continue to do its own thing no matter what new "facts" we discern about it. And those facts are all the meaning that an ant can have in our anthropic world. "The ant is culturally constructed," she says, "and I for one am intrigued by its future" (191).

Sleigh, Charlotte. Ant. London: Reaktion, 2003.