Lewis Thomas and the Ants of New York City

Lewis Thomas was a doctor who wrote articles so beautiful everyone forgot he was anything but a writer. Joyce Carol Oates used Thomas’s writing in her classes as general examples of the craft. Thomas was the kind of writer who left paragraphs that, on their own, might, with any luck, last centuries. They have already lasted decades. Here, for example, is one of which I am fond…

A gallery in New York exhibited a collection of 2 million live army ants, on loan from Central America, in a one-colony show entitled “Patterns and Structures.” They were displayed on sand in a huge squared bin, walled by plastic sides high enough to prevent them from crawling over and out into Manhattan. The inventor of the work, Alan Sonfist, arranged and rearranged the location of food sources in different places, according to his inspiration and their taste, and they formed themselves into long, black, ropy patterns, extended like writhing limbs, hands, fingers, across the sand in crescents, crisscrosses, and ellipses, from one station to another. Thus deployed, they were watched with intensity by the crowds of winter-carapaced people who lined up in neat rows to gaze down on them. The ants were, together with the New Yorkers, an abstraction, a live mobile, an action painting, a piece of found art, a happening, a parody, depending on the light.

I have been unable to find a good image of Sonfist’s exhibit1(though see here), which was put on in the Architectural League building on Broadway. What we can say for sure is that inside the container the ants were given dirt covered in pale sand against which their reddish bodies could be most easily be seen. They were also given food. Every so often the food was moved so as to create or maybe mimic different structures of society and to, as the work’s title suggests, imply a process. With the right bait, the bodies of the ants could be made to reveal a near infinite variety of optimal forms.

Since Sonfist’s installation, the possibility that insect societies might be used as models of optimal human social connections and other networks has begun to be taken far more seriously. Ants are used to model subways, road networks, or even the spread of human disease. I could talk about Sonfist as an instance of art anticipating science; it was. But there is another remarkable feature of this installation, a feature I get hung up on. Outside the building in which Patterns and Structures was staged there were, unnoticed by Sonfist, millions of ants.

Knowing nothing of Sonfist’s exhibit (or remembering nothing anyway), I started studying ants on Broadway about twelve years ago with Marko Pećarević who was then a student of James Danoff-Burg (James is now in charge of Conservation Education at the San Diego Zoo). I have continued to poke around those same medians ever since as have my students and other researchers in my lab. In that entire time the one thing we have discovered most unambiguously is that no one knows anything about the ants in New York. The other thing that we have discovered is that in Broadway medians, like nearly everywhere else on Earth, live a lot of ants.

Thomas said there were two million ants in Sonfist’s exhibit. Sonfist’s own account suggests a more reasonable 20,000. How many live in the island of an average median on Broadway? In samples of leaf and other litter from medians, Britne Hackett, Benoit Guénard and Amy Savage have found, on average, 66 ants per square meter above ground (we can reasonably assume this is a relatively small part of the many more ants underground, but let’s ignore those). This means that an average sized median hosts no fewer than, conveniently, about 20,000 ants, at any moment, above ground. Focusing just on the median, we are left to consider how similar the median is—set off by cement—to the container in which the ants were installed in the exhibit. But this is an illusion. If we scale up our estimate of the number of ants in the median to estimate the number of ants in all of the green spaces of Manhattan we quickly realize that there are billions of ants running through the litter of the city and even greater numbers, at any moment, underground, billions of ants and six times as many legs, many more ants than humans, many more.

More importantly, what lives out in the medians is not just one society, but instead a diversity of social forms. As Eleanor Spicer Rice points out in our new eBook, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City, the ants of the Big Apple include some societies that dig holes many meters into the ground where a fat queen lives a buffered life and others that live exposed up in the trees. They include societies of just a dozen individuals and those with hundreds of thousands of individuals. They include some societies with just one queen and others with many (though no societies with kings, who in ants do little more than mate and then wander, aimlessly). They include societies that subsist almost entirely on sugars and others that eat nothing but other animals. They include societies that layer their paths with smooth stones and those that excavate galleries in wood. They include, in short, even just in medians in New York, a diversity of ways of living shaped, if not to perfection, to high levels of functioning by millions of years of genetic trial and error.

Sonfist (and Lewis) missed the ants outside and, in the end, Sonfist’s indoor ants, ants of one species not native to New York and certainly not used to living in glass, died. This death is what struck Thomas; it was the loss of an entire society, a city in miniature:

There was no explanation…  Monday they were moving sluggishly, with less precision, dully. Then, the death began, affecting first one part and then another, and within a day all 2 million were dead…

Thomas ended his article opaquely, quoting an unnamed source who wrote:

 It is not surprising that many analogies have been drawn between the social insects and human societies; however, these are misleading or meaningless, for the behavior of insects is rigidly stereotyped and determined by innate instructive mechanisms; they show little or no insight or capacity for learning, and they lack the ability to develop a social tradition based on the accumulated experience of many generations.

Thomas went on to say, that “it is, of course, an incomplete comfort to read this sort of thing to one’s self. For full effect, it needs reading aloud by several people at once, moving the lips in synchrony,” the synchronous reminder that we can plan and learn; we could, Thomas implies, get out of our box if conditions got bad.

When I first read Thomas’s exhortation, I thought about the value of our accumulated human knowledge, our collective culture.  I thought about all that we have that the ants do not. But more recently, upon rereading the line, I thought about something else, the perspective of the ants, I thought about the billions of ants of tens of different kinds of societies, each winnowed by millennia, looking up at our buildings of glass and steel. I thought about the exhibit we present to them. The ants may show little insight or capacity for learning and yet from their perspective it is our success or failure that, in the exhibit space of Broadway and everywhere else, is always on display.

1-As an aside, there is an interesting anecdote about Sonfist’s ants of which Thomas seems to have been unaware, namely that Thomas was writing about the second batch. According to an article in a Pittsburgh newspaper, the first batch of army ants was discovered by the night watchman who promptly killed them all with insecticide.

Download Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City today!

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:10+00:00 February 17th, 2014|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

One Comment

  1. Out Walking the Dog February 17, 2014 at 4:33 pm - Reply

    Fascinating story. Never knew about Sonfist’s ant art. Look forward to reading the new book as well.

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