Ivan Denisovich vs Ants

Both More or Less Social

Posted Apr 19, 2015

Source: alexwild/myrmecos.net

One day in February of 1945, Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the Soviet Committee for State Security: the KGB. In a letter to a friend, he’d made references to “The Boss” and “The Master of the House.” Stalin wasn’t mentioned by name, but it was enough. Solzhenitsyn spent 8 years in Soviet labor camps, where he worked as a bricklayer, foundryman and miner.  In March of 1953, Stalin died.

Then in February of 1956, Khrushchev made his speech. “It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god,” he said.  Such a belief about a man, and specifically about Stalin, had been cultivated.  Solzhenitsyn was able to publish his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in November of 1962. And in October of 1970, "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature,” he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Solzhenitsyn’s literary output was by then enormous: he’d finished The First Circle, The Cancer Ward, and his 3 volume work on The Gulag Archipelago—about the forced labor camp “islands” strung across Siberia, or along the Steppes. And at some point, he wrote a short prose poem on “The Bonfire and the Ants.” It was about a rotten log thrown into a fire, but alive with bugs. It ends like this:

“Strangely enough, they did not run away from the fire. They had no sooner overcome their terror than they turned, circled, and some kind of force drew them back to their forsaken homeland. There were many who climbed back onto the burning log, ran about on it and perished.”

That short poem inspired my old friend, Jae Choe—another Ed Wilson student—to write a wonderful little book about The Secret Lives of Ants.  In it, he talks about how they've been fruitful and multiplied and conquered the earth. Ants of various species work as fungus cultivators (the first farmers) and aphid breeders (the first herders), as nannies and nurses, as bodyguards (some block doorways) and soldiers (some blow themselves up), as slavemakers and, occasionally, as queens. Workers occasionally sneak off and lay eggs on the colony’s outskirts, or barricaded in nest chambers. And occasionally, queens hunt those rebels down, and tear them apart with their strong jaws. But most workers are effectively reproductively suppressed, with a pheromone called the "queen substance." Queens mate with dozens of drones, and lay—in the case of Atta ants—as many as 150 million eggs. But other members of the colony live and die as parts of a sterile caste.

All of which makes the author and many of the rest of us wonder why “eusocial,” or truly social groups, exist.  What makes an individual animal sacrifice itself?  The old answer was kinship.  But as Jae Choe, and Ed Wilson, and others have lately pointed out, queens are more closely related to their own sons and daughters than workers are to their half-sisters and brothers. That’s why there are rebels, and why rebellions are quashed.

In One Day in the Life Of Ivan Denisovich, Alexandr Solzhenitzen may have hinted at a better answer. When Denisovich gets up on that day, at reveille, he sludges through the snow and cold, past the high wooden fence around the guardhouse, past the barbed wire that protects the camp bakery from the hungry, past guards with machine guns, past guards with snarling gray dogs, and into a penetrating electric light. “Two powerful searchlights swept the camp from the farthest watchtowers. The border lights, as well as those inside the camp, were on. There were so many of them that they outshone the stars.”

Civilizations—ant, honeybee, and human—tend to rise up in spots where workers are trapped.  Where they wait on their overlords, or die.  Where it’s not easy to run, tunnel or fly away.


Choe, Jae.  2010.  The Secret Lives of Ants, with a foreword by Jane Goodall, translated by Dan Perleman.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Choe, Jae and Bernie Crespi.  1997.  The Evolution of Mating Systems in Insects and Arachnids.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Choe, Jae and Bernie Crespi.  1997.  The Evolution of Social Behaviour in Insects and Arachnids.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Betzig, Laura.  2014.  Eusociality in Humans, a special issue of Human Nature, 25: 1-99.