Long read | What termites can teach us

Roboticists are fascinated by their “swarm intelligence,” biologists by their ability to turn grass into energy. But can humans replicate their achievements, asks Amia Srinivasan in the New Yorker

New termite colonies are founded on windless evenings, at dusk, after the rain. Most termites have neither eyes nor wings, but every mature colony has a caste of translucent-winged seeing creatures called alates, which are nurtured by the colony’s workers until they are ready to propagate. When the time comes—given the right temperature and humidity—colonies release thousands of alates into the air, an event called “swarming.” Most of the nutrient-rich alates are eaten by animals as they glide to the ground. The few that survive shed their wings and pair off, male and female. Then they burrow into the earth, future kings and queens. The pair will remain there, alone in a dark hole, for the rest of their lives. They bite off the ends of their antennae, reducing their acute sensitivity; perhaps it’s a means of making more bearable a life wholly given over to procreation. They mate, and the queen begins to lay her eggs. She will lay millions in the course of her decades-long life—the longest life span of any insect. Her translucent white abdomen, constricted by the tight black bands of her exoskeleton, swells to the size of a human thumb, leaving her unable to move. Her tiny head and legs flail while her pulsating body is fed and cleaned by her offspring. The South African naturalist and poet Eugène Marais described the queen’s fate in “The Soul of the White Ant” (first published, in Afrikaans, in 1934): “Although you will apparently be an immobile shapeless mass buried in a living grave, you will actually be a sensitive mainspring. You will become the feeling, the thinking, the seeing, of a life a thousand times greater and more important than yours could ever have become.”

Humans have often looked at insects and seen themselves, or the selves they would like to be. Early-modern European naturalists peered into termite mounds, anthills, and beehives and saw microcosms of well-ordered states: monarchs, soldiers, laborers. (There was no general recognition that bee “kings” were actually female “queens” until the sixteen-seventies, when a Dutch microscopist, Jan Swammerdam, pointed out that bee kings had ovaries.) In 1781, Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society celebrating termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation” for “most closely imitating mankind in provident industry and regular government.” Termites, he wrote, surpassed “all other animals” in the “arts of building” by the same margin that “Europeans excel the least cultivated savages.” According to Smeathman, the “perfect” alate caste “might very appositely be called the nobility or gentry, for they neither labour, or toil, or fight, being quite incapable of either,” but are instead devoted to founding new colonies. (In 1786, Smeathman published a plan for the settling of freed black slaves in a new colony, on the West African coast, where he had done his termite studies.) He viewed the laborers, meanwhile, as “voluntary subjects” who served the “happy pair” of king and queen. Just over a century later, in “Mutual Aid” (1902), the Russian thinker and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin exalted the cooperative habits of termites as a model, and a scientific basis, for Communism. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud presented the termite mound as an example of the perfect sublimation of the individual will to the demands of the group—a sublimation that, he said, would continue to elude mankind.

Read the full feature here.

Jorge Luis Borges selects 74 books for your personal library
Video | How ‘LOL’ changed the way we talk
Podcast | The Islamic State and the fall of Mosul
Editor’s Pick More