When trying to figure out what to do with the state budget, the economy or even my business, I try to remember the ants. Or, to be more exact, I think about what I’ve learned about ants from reading the 700-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Ants, written by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson.
Ants, you see, have been occupying the planet for much longer than us humans. They have successfully adapted to almost every climate, faced numerous difficulties and tough times, and yet have still come out on top.
Like humans, ants face many difficult situations. While humans have to decide whether or not to raise taxes, ants have to figure out how far to go to hunt for food. While we have to decide whether to destroy or preserve our social safety net, ants have to figure out whether to cross the river or go around it.
According to E.O. Wilson, if you want to discover how far an ant will travel to find food, first you need to know how far away the different food opportunities are. Then you need to know how many calories it will take for the ant to get to those food opportunities. Then you need to know how dangerous the trip might be. Somehow, an ant takes all of these variables into consideration when weighing the decision to go out and find food.
Ants do not trek to the end of the world to find food, and ants do not stay home for fear of being killed. Rather, ants somehow weigh the benefits of finding food against the odds of being killed, and then they make a practical choice.
As humans, we face many, many societal problems. Just like the ants, we need to weigh the different options. For example, we need to consider the unpleasantness of raising taxes against the dangers of eliminating the social safety net, and then make a practical choice.
When ants go out to collect different foods, how do they know what to bring back? If too many ants bring back leaves, the anthill workers will select what they need and leave the rest of the ants holding the unneeded leaves. The anthill workers know what they need for balance. The ants that are left holding leaves have to go back out and find something else. Fairly quickly, they understand that they need to bring in insects or some other needed food supply.
Remembering the ants keeps me in touch with the importance of finding practical solutions as opposed to holding extreme ideological positions. At varying times it may be more important to place a higher emphasis on jobs or the environment or improving national defense, but over the long haul, striking a balance is the way to go.
In solving the problems of the world, we can learn a lot from the ants.