Please visit our new site!


Karl Marx was right

For the greater good

Rebecca Nesbit 19 April 2018

In this city men serve one purpose only: the delivery of sperm

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the ninth installment in our series, The League of Imaginary Cats. Read more about the Series in our accompanying editorial, and use the navigation links at the top right to catch up.

For three days the debutantes have been waiting, while rain has turned the paths into murky rivers and the fields into squelching bogs. This is no weather to leave the city for the first and only time, and so they wait.

The men too are waiting, not just to meet their regal brides, but for their own demise. In this city men serve one purpose only: the delivery of sperm. The women know how to work; they don’t need the men’s direction or their strength. The men may have been placed on death row, but for now they crowd the city’s tunnels, waiting for the sun to shine and set them free.

There is nothing glamorous about the men who will serenade the debutantes; looks have nothing to do with it. If one mating would last each debutante a lifetime, why would they worry about choosing a partner who is pleasing to the eye? In fact, why would they bother to choose one at all? Strength is the decider, that and luck.

Outside the confines of the peaceful city, it’s each man for himself.

The debutantes’ smaller sisters continue their servitude, apparently unaffected by the finery of the parade that is blocking their corridors.

In the mind of Karl Marx, socialism was harmony, and the city’s workers perform their tasks without prompting or complaint. Hunting, gathering, farming, building, child-rearing; they adjust their duties according to the city’s needs. National service is completed without cowardice or reluctance. There is no shame or triumph in fighting to the death; it is simply fact. Some of the fighters carry totems of their enemies; limbs are lost in battle, but heads can be gained, as even in death jaws stay clamped around enemy limbs.

Outside the harmonious city, a scientist feels rain trickle down the back of her neck. “Karl Marx was right, socialism works,” her mentor E.O. Wilson had said. “It’s just that he had the wrong species.”

To her, the ants working tirelessly around her feet epitomize the harmony that Karl Marx so foolishly believed he could claim for humans. Not only that, their form of communism leads to times of plenty. Workers farm aphids for their honeydew, and forage for meat and plants to feed their city of thousands.

But it isn’t the same. A human city houses thousands of people with conflicting needs, each capable of reproducing themselves if only they have enough resources for the needs of their offspring. The ant nest is more like a human body than a human city, each caste of ants like an organ. The queen is merely the ovaries.

Socialism, she thinks, doesn’t work inside her body. Her head says stay, collect more data, but her stomach is grumbling and her fingers are numb with cold. Her body is no more obedient to her brain than were the peasants who complained of food shortages to Chairman Mao.

She stands up slowly, her muscles stiff from hours of squatting next to ant nests. At least her job is only to make the theories; unlike Mao, Marx, Stalin or Lenin she has no control over the future of her cities and their inhabitants. It is up to the ants to keep the peace and put on their annual spectacle of reproduction.


Two days later the debutantes and their partners left the nest. Birds feasted, home-owners despaired, dragonflies displayed their skills at aerial predation. The scientist recorded her data with renewed enthusiasm, delighting in the public celebration taking place outside each of her cities.

When the party had dispersed, just as dusk was threatening, a few surviving queens dropped their wings and began to dig. If the energy from her redundant wing muscles lasts her through the rearing of her first brood, each queen has a chance of building a city of her own – not ruling, but serving. She lays the eggs, and in return her daughters become her keepers.


Edward Osborne Wilson, born in 1929, is an American biologist most famous for his research on ants and sociobiology (the biological basis of social behaviour in animals and humans). Wilson has explored what it means to be human, as well as added to our understanding of insect evolution. These may seem like vastly different areas of study, but ants and humans have something very unusual in common: they live in eusocial societies. Many species live in groups, but few have taken it a step further, whereby individual group members take on different roles.

It is in our nature to question who we are, and for thousands of years humans have invented stories about our creation. But, as Wilson explains in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, these are a product of our evolution, not an explanation of what makes us human. Creation myths strengthened the bond between tribal members, but they can never reveal the origins and meaning of humanity. Instead, Wilson aims to do this with science.

Why, for example, have ants mastered communism when humans fail so dismally?

Wilson argues that our ‘split personality’, displaying elements of both altruism and selfishness, is the product of our social evolution. Whereas ant colonies only have a single or very few reproductive individuals, the majority of human adults are capable of reproducing. Ants, therefore, act selflessly for the good of the colony, but we are left with an internal conflict. If we share resources with others, or even risk our lives for them, we may compromise our chances of reproduction. But this ‘individual selection’ isn’t the only force at play. Humans have evolved to live in groups and divide labour to maximize the group’s chance of survival and reproduction.

The theory of ‘group selection’ that Wilson advocates as an explanation for altruism differs from the theory of ‘kin selection’ put forward in Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene. If I were to risk my life to save my brother (who shares half of my genes), this would be kin selection; but if I risk my life for the sake of the group I live in (a group upon which my survival and hence reproduction is dependent), this is group selection.

Although group selection promoted the evolution of altruism, individual selection provided us with a tendency for selfish behaviour. This means that humans are not ideal candidates for communism.

Arguably, however, Marx wouldn’t have been satisfied even with the ants’ form of communism. They may behave impeccably towards their nestmates, but they often show extreme aggression to ants from other colonies. A tendency for ‘groupishness’, where we may love our neighbours but go to war with our enemies, is an evolutionary burden that humans are also left with. Our tribal ancestors could more effectively harvest resources and ward off predators by living in groups, but they competed with other groups for food and shelter. Thus our form of altruism evolved to have dual standards: protect and support our group but club together to defeat our enemies.

As well as our predisposition to both cooperation and war, Wilson has explored the role of evolution in the origins of language, culture, religion and the creative arts. He has a profound interest in literature and published his own novel, Anthill. For him, the conflict between altruism and selfishness provides literature with a vast quantity of potential stories and scenarios (a Shakespeare writing about ants, Wilson points out, would have only two storylines: triumph and tragedy).

Wilson argues for increased integration between science and the humanities. The humanities are generally studied in isolation from a knowledge of the cognitive process behind them and the course of evolution that led to the development of the arts.

Science and literature both help us to understand what it means to be human. In the words of Picasso, taken from The Social Conquest of Earth:

Art is the lie that helps us see the truth