Learning from ants: the power of social connection

Standing on the upper concourse of London Waterloo station this morning, looking down at all the people moving purposefully to and from the platforms, I was reminded very strongly of something I had spotted earlier in the summer while on holiday. One afternoon, sitting outside in the sun, I noticed movement on the paving stones beneath my chair; on closer inspection this proved to be a piece of food, being transported by a group of ants. While there was an apparent (and probably deceptive) lack of coordination in the movements of other ants, who were scurrying backwards and forward around the ants who were doing the heavy lifting, the actions of the main body of ants were unmistakably deliberate and focused. There was no doubt about it: the piece of food was being transported in a determined and efficient manner, and as directly as possible, it was clear, towards what I assumed must be the ants’ home base – their nest.

It was not an insubstantial piece of food. In fact, if scaled up to stand alongside a human, it would likely balloon to an object that was a good few metres tall, long and wide. A single ant could not have carried it; together, however, around 15 ants were managing the task. A quick delve into the habits of ants reveals that – in as far as we have been able to identify this – ants achieve these feats of weightlifting because of the high proportion of muscle mass in their very small bodies. An Asian Weaver ant can reportedly carry up to 100 times its body weight. Moreover, scientists have discovered that an ant’s neck joint is able to withstand pressures of up to 5,000 times the ant’s weight. When the weight of an even heavier object is distributed amongst several ants, the amount that can be transported collectively is astonishingly high.

Human beings may lack some of these physiological features (and in any case usually have neither the opportunity nor, thankfully, the need to transport super-enormous chunks of food). As manifested at Waterloo station, however, the similarities between human behaviour and the behaviour of ants are striking. All the people at Waterloo were travelling somewhere, moving together in groups, with a purpose that was almost certainly, in most cases, linked to personal need and to the need of others – travelling to work in order to support a family, for instance. They were all using shared infrastructure (trains, taxis, roads) and shared services (shops, cash machines, cafes) that have been designed and made and staffed by other human beings in order to facilitate communal movement and/or respond to communal needs for sustenance of all kinds, from the physical to the intellectual. When we step back and look at the world around us, seeing afresh, in moments of enlightenment, how so much of what we take for granted has come into being, then we can gain a deeper and much more powerful appreciation of what human society means in practice. It is really quite remarkable.

So – just a reminder: when we think we are doing things alone, we aren’t. We are surrounded by, and are benefiting from, the efforts of other human beings – those around us and those who have gone before.

Oh … and like the ants, let us not forget that in everything we do, together we are stronger.


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