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C200: Cityants

2011 March 15
by Charles Mudede

< Looking north on 1st Ave, downtown Seattle; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Ants are very different from humans. To begin with, they are advanced eusocial animals, where as humans, along with many wasp types, have attained a eusociality that’s only primitive. Eusociality proper is attained when the social organization of a species is biological—army ants have big heads and pinchers, worker ants do not reproduce, only a queen can live long and generate eggs. Humans are highly social and have an exceptional division of labor (exceptional to other primates), but the organization of our societies is not biological but cultural. Under normal conditions, an individual in a human society has the choice to join the army, work on a construction site or raise the young. Also, and again under normal conditions, any female human can reproduce. Ant societies have no males.

The reason why we often compare humans with ants is because human cities converge with ant colonies. A convergence in evolutionary biology is when two completely different species meet the same problem with the same answer. The wings of a bat and the wings of a bird are an example of a convergence. The wings of a bat did not descend from the wings of bird—if such were the case, then the two types of wings would be analogical rather than homological. The human city converges with an ant colony; their resemblance results from the fact that they are similar answers to the similar problems: super sociality (food storage and distribution, garage collection and disposal, transportation networks, ventilation systems).

In the book Ant at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized, Deborah Gordon describes a remarkable discovery concerning the behavior of aging ant colonies. Old ant colonies do not behave the same as young ones. Even if the population and composition of an old colony is the same as that of a young one (an ant in the species she studied, the harvester ants of Arizona, lives for about a year), they do things very differently. Meaning, it’s as if the colony has a mind of its own, a mind and personality that’s independent of its own composition—many interacting ants.

Gordon’s discovery naturally points our thinking to the human city. From a history of human interactions might there emerge the personality of the city? A personality that is the city itself and has nothing to with the composition of the population it contains? Even if the composition of an old city like Rome were the same as that of a new city like Seattle, they would not behave, act, respond to problems in the same way. The old city behaves like an old person; the young one like a young person. When Nas rapped about a “NY State of Mind,” what he had in mind was the state of mind a city sets in a person. In the light of Gordon’s discovery, we can also think of a city as having its own state of mind.


Charles Mudede is a filmmaker and also associate editor at The Stranger.