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The final showdown: People vs. antsBY: Dan Rottenberg 07.17.2012
A 1971 film called The Hellstrom Chronicle made a believer of me: Insects will be here long after we humans have destroyed ourselves. Since then, the population explosion and biotechnology have given me new hope. But we humans still have our work cut out for us.
The good news
Whenever people talk about the way great art can change your life, I think of the artwork that changed my life.
The Hellstrom Chronicle was a skilful documentary— minimally packaged as science fiction in order to reach a popular audience— about insects. Through its barrage of outstanding close-up footage of ants, spiders, wasps, bees, termites and mosquitoes in action— interspersed with glimpses of mankind’s self-destructive foibles— The Hellstrom Chronicle convincingly built the incredible notion that insects possess all the strengths of humans and suffer none of our weaknesses (like say, egos, emotions and Clint Eastwood movies).
I left the theater convinced that insects will be here long after we humans have destroyed ourselves, and what’s more we can’t stop them even if we got our act together.
That was in 1971. At the time, the world’s human population numbered fewer than four billion— no match for all those armies of ants, bees and mosquitoes. Today it’s seven billion.
What’s more, advances in gene therapy, immunology and organ and cellular transplantation hold forth the prospect that modern science might soon extend the human lifespan to hundreds of years or even eliminate death altogether, which means the world’s human population could continue to grow exponentially. That, at least, was the future persuasively envisioned by the noted biotech venture capitalist Wallace Steinberg (until he died inconveniently in his sleep in 1995 at the age of 61).
This vision alarms many people who fear an overcrowded planet (not to mention a world in which your parents and grandparents are always looking over your shoulder). But the so-called population explosion won’t disturb anyone who saw The Hellstrom Chronicle. As far as we’re concerned, anything that helps equalize the odds for the inevitable showdown between humans and insects is a blessing.
For years I’ve done the math: If there are seven billion of us, and if each of us could put his or her mind to squashing just one insect every day, we could eliminate 210 billion insects in a month. Within a year we’d wipe out 2.5 trillion. I asked myself: How many of them could there be?
Now, at last, the answer to that question has been provided by the esteemed biologist Edward O. Wilson.
In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth (Liveright, $27.95), Wilson points out that only two types of organisms have evolved socially to the point where they’re capable of conquering the earth: humans and social insects, notably ants. The key similarity between these two species, according to Wilson, is “eusociality,” which Wilson defines as “group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.”
According to Wilson, ants and termites originated 120 million years ago and were fully evolved by 50 million years ago; homo sapiens, by contrast, emerged only 200,000 years ago. As the Video Ranger wailed to Captain Video, circa 1950, “The Venutians have a more advanced life form! How will we ever defeat them?”
Of course it’s true that there are seven billion of us, and each of us is much larger than thousands of ants. But it’s also true, as Wilson informs us, that there are ten thousand trillion ants crawling around today.
In other words, they have us outnumbered by more than 1.4 million to one.
A single leafcutter ant can produce 150 million daughters, never mind sons.
And you were worried because the Barnes Foundation moved from Merion to the Parkway?
The good news is that here at last is a cause capable of uniting young and old, blacks and whites, gays and straights, liberals and conservatives, male chauvinists and feminists, city dwellers and suburbanites, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Hindus, Sunnis and Shiites, Galitzianers and Litvaks.
But we have our work cut out for us. If you exclude infants, the elderly, the lame, the halt and conscientious objectors, we have at best maybe 5 billion able-bodied troops. And if each of those 5 billion commits to stepping on one ant a day, it will take 280,000 days to get rid of them. That’s 767 years.
Maybe we should ramp up the individual quota to ten ants a day.
Come to think of it, why are you even reading this column when you could be out on the front lines, stepping on ants? Get going! There’s a not a minute to lose!
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