In The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson survey the last 15 years of myrmecological research. Picking up where their Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants left off, The Superorganism is a completely wonderful book. It is packed with astonishing findings and beautiful illustrations, and, happily, it also contains enough information about ant civilization to set up a few ants-vs.-humans scenarios. Let us skip lightly over the fact that to compare ants and humans is to pit thousands of species against just one. Rather, let’s start with the idea that we begin the contest evenly matched—at 6.6 billion humans and approximately 5 million billion ants, humans and ants have roughly the same biomass. What if a global disaster struck? Who would come out on top?
We won’t be able to declare one species smarter or better—each is wildly successful in its own niche, and at any rate, that would make as much sense as saying one is better-looking than the other. Still, we can wonder about how robust life is at such extreme ends of the genes-mind spectrum. What if, for example, you hammered the Earth with a volcano or a big rock from space? Who would survive? Or think about that classic of speculative fiction—mass sterility. Imagine that both ants’ and humans’ biological clocks sputter and stop, and reproduction just doesn’t work as it used to. Is life as we know it over? Perhaps a mysterious plague has moved unnoticed among us until one morning we awake and 70 percent of both populations has disappeared? Could civilization recover? Either one? [continued…]