Six Legs Best

A future society based on a tried and tested class structure. This edition published by Penguin Books 1971. Cover art by Harry Willock.

Insects might be considered to be the most successful animals on Earth.  They have colonised almost all land areas of the planet and exist in truly vast numbers – ants alone have been estimated to comprise up to a quarter of all the animal biomass on land.  We like to think that humans are the dominant species here because we have intelligence and can achieve remarkable things, but there is a case to be made that, in terms of long-term survival potential, insects could be the true survivors.

They also have abilities which give them the edge over other species.  As I suggested in a previous webpost, Swarm Mentality, the ability of insects to act together as a swarm gives them a power well beyond that possessed by any individual member, and the principles of swarming behaviour are so effective for survival purposes that they are likely to prove vital for the future of nanotechnology.

Not all insects swarm, or live in hives, but the considerable evolutionary advantages of such modes of existence suggest that they could be a model adopted by extraterrestrial species that we might encounter one day.  But the success of such aliens would depend largely on their methods of reproduction – creating huge numbers of individual members of a hive is critical to success.  The Borg in Star Trek appear to do this through assimilating other species into their collective (and, as we all know, resistance is futile), rather than breeding their own drones.  Any insectoid alien race may be more likely to have evolved the particularly efficient process whereby certain individuals – aka queens – specialise in producing future generations while everyone else goes about their daily life.

We see this with the appearance of the alien queen towards the end of the 1986 science fiction film Aliens, and it could have its attractions for any species.  In John Wyndham’s 1956 novella Consider Her Ways, a doctor finds herself transported to a near future where an all-female human society has been re-structured along the lines of an ant colony – “one of the most enduring social patterns that nature has evolved” – following the demise of the male of the species.  It functions on a rigid class-based system, including the Mother caste who have the sole duty of producing babies, and of which the narrator appears to be a member.  And, despite the seemingly utilitarian and colourless nature of this society, we get the impression of something which could survive for the long term.

Wyndham took the title of his story from the Biblical exhortation (Proverbs 6:6 in the King James version): “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise”.  It begins a short lesson against the dangers of laziness, since the ant is seen as an industrious and tireless creature from whom we could all learn something useful.  Which may be true enough, but at the heart of the matter lies the major difference between us and insects – our intelligence means that we can afford to be lazy at times, and also to believe that it is us, not them, that have come to dominate this world.

Natural selection on other worlds may ensure that a hive existence could be the dominant life-form, with no need for the encumbrance of unnecessary intelligence, but a developed hive might evolve a strong ability to adapt to circumstances in order to survive.  In his 1982 short story Swarm, Bruce Sterling describes humans encountering a non-intelligent, insectoid alien race which has been able to assimilate other species.  It can create temporary features, even intelligence if the need arises, to see it through a problem or crisis, but it is the routine life of the hive that remains the pinnacle of its success in evolutionary terms.  Why bother with wasteful traits which have no long term advantage?

So when you next see a colony of ants in the garden, or maybe watch a film such as The Naked Jungle from 1954 where army ants demolish all in their path, it might be worth contemplating which species actually dominates this planet, let alone those we have yet to visit out in space.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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