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Of ants, mice and men!

Khalid Saleem

THE world is full of mugs. One would allude at this time simply to the ones in which one can sip tea or coffee. What draws ones attention to this useful receptacle is the delectable variety of catchwords that one discovers inscribed on some such. What one found extremely apt and amusing was: “The rat-race is over; the rats won!” How well put and how apt; given the sorry state of the world today.
Come to think of it, rats of all genres were always ahead of the pack in any case. The strength of the rats lies in the fact that there are so many of them around today; they have always been plenty so far as history can record. The name of the game is survival. The rats have the survival instinct in their genes. The more get eliminated; the more they procreate. At the end of it all, there are invariably more rats than one started with. Goodness knows how long the rat race (no pun intended) has survived all the heavy odds stacked against it. The fact remains that they have emerged as survivors. And they will continue to survive – and prosper – so long as they retain their savvy.
If survival is the name of the game then there exists another species that have and undoubtedly will continue to beat the rats, of all genres, at their own game. On refers to the world of insects that is all pervasive and ever present. If one goes by numbers then the insects will outnumber any or, in deed, all other species put together by a fair margin. It is not only in the numbers game that insects excel. They also have exhibited a remarkable ability to overcome adversity of all kinds. Take the example of the lowly cockroach. It is reputed to have survived a good three hundred million years, which is quite a long innings even in geological terms. When the dinosaurs appeared on the face of the earth, the cockroach was there to welcome them. Subsequently, when the time came for the big meteorite (or whatever) to strike the earth to signal the dinosaurs’ extinction, the cockroach was around to wave good-bye. Now, that is survival!
Man, of course, figures nowhere on the survival ladder. With the course the world’s great leaders are adopting, it is a moot point whether this blessed Planet, as we know it, will survive their machinations for any extended period of time. Man appears to be bent upon destroying himself and his own. It is such a pity that after such a long period of recorded history, man still appears to be groping in the dark. Rather than learn from past mistakes, man appears to be overly bent upon repeating them. Man’s inhumanity to man is the stuff of legends. Scientific knowledge that is touted to be the bedrock of human civilization is utilized more in devising newer and deadlier engines of destruction rather than ameliorating the lot of mankind. The matter of survival appears to be the last thing on Man’s mind.
Gravitating now to the subject of our dissertation, ants appear to be in the optimum position to outdo – and outlive – all other species in numbers as well as diversification. Some years ago, Reuters had disseminated a most interesting report on the subject. It was quite a revelation. The report, related to what was termed – tongue in cheek – as ‘ant-thology’, contituted the first complete database of the world’s eleven thousand known ‘ant sub-species’. The study in question brought to light additional facts of some interest. Among them are: a) Ants are the most common life form on earth; b) Though tiny, their combined weight is greater than that of the combined weight of all humans on the planet.
Apart from the aforementioned, ants as a species exhibit several characteristics that set them apart as way ahead of most other species. Among these characteristics is the extraordinary division of responsibility, a seriousness of purpose and a strict disciplinary order of the highest order. What is more, the ants have a much more developed sense of tactics and strategy in their dealings amongst themselves and with other species than humankind ever did. It is these and allied qualities that set them apart and have enabled them to survive so long against fearful odds. Human beings have been waging a losing war against the ants for as long as one can remember. It requires no great intelligence to surmise as to which species is destined to outlive the other.
The aforementioned notwithstanding, one can hardly help noticing with regret that such studies of species such as ants are not leading to the desired conclusions. The anticipated impact on science and environment aside, are there any lessons that humankind is drawing from such insect behaviour? Are we, for instance, assimilating some of their good qualities particularly those that have ensured their survival over the centuries; their tendency to form cohesive, self-generating colonies, for one? Or, for that matter, their lovable habit of minding their own business, without treading on others’ toes, for another.
What one needs to conclude from observing the lowly ant is that it hardly pays to throw one’s weight around. If anything, one should learn humility, tolerance and tenacity from this remarkable species of insects. But then, as mankind’s history is witness, it is futile to expect humans to be so humble as to stoop down to the level of lowly insects even if it was for their own good. The moral – if one were inclined to draw one – is that it would be in the interest of humankind to learn from such species as have not only mastered the art of survival but have actually prospered, at a time when others –ostensibly bigger and more powerful – have fallen by the wayside, unheralded and unsung. Survival – as a deep study of the experience of ants would make clear – depends less on strength and subterfuge and more on self-help and mutual tolerance. Should we not, then, learn from the ants before it is too late? Some hope!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.