A Few Thoughts on the Dead Ant Heap and Our Mechanical Society

Cryonics, April 1990

by Steven B. Harris, M.D.

“Departmental” by Robert Frost:

An ant on the table cloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn’t with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on this duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive’s enquiry squad
Whose work it is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn’t given a moment’s arrest —
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
‘Death’s come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen.’
And presently upon the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position
With feelers calmly atwiddle
Seizes the dead by the middle
And heaving him high in the air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else’s affair.

It couldn’t be called ungentle.
But how thoroughly departmental.

Ants really do behave in somewhat the way Frost describes, as famous entomologist and ant specialist E. O. Wilson, writing recently in Discover magazine (11(3), 44 (Mar, 1990)), reminds us recently. Dead ants in a nest are not treated like other organic matter, but instead identified specifically as dead ants, and deposited in a special dead ant heap. This an example of highly social behavior.

It might be natural to imagine that ants destined for mortuarial services are recognized as such by sight or touch, but this is not the case. Ants are odor-sensitive creatures whose small brains (only a couple of million neurons) force them to respond only to very simple stimuli, and then only in a limited number of ways. Thus, dead ants are identified not by look or feel, but by their smell of decomposition — in this case an odor conferred by esters of oleic acid. Ants have no intelligence as we understand the term. Anything that smells of oleic acid esters, therefore, will be taken to the dead ant cemetery, no matter what it is. Oleic acid esters painted on a tiny piece of wood will cause it to be treated as a tiny ant corpse. Even a live ant, if painted with oleic acid esters, will be removed by its fellows, still struggling, to the cemetery. Nor will the painted ant be allowed to return to the nest until it has cleaned itself thoroughly. In the meantime, as far as its nestmates are concerned, it is dead.

The Problem

There is the stuff of comedy here. In fact, one major theory of comedy posits that we find human (or in some cases, animal) action funny when the organism, for plausible or natural reasons, is found to be behaving as an automaton. This is the reason why bureaucracies, organizations, and government are ripe for satire. The British seem especially good at humor of this type. The “dead ant joke” will be recognized in one variation in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in a shtick which has Black Plague victims identified by an over-efficient (i.e., mechanical) society and dragged off to the cemetery, still protesting mildly that they’re not quite dead yet.

To cryonicists, of course, not all of this is black comedy; some of it is black reality. In modern human society the dead are identified in rather simple fashion, too. The identificaion is done by a person in a white coat writing something on a form; but for all the effect this procedure has on social action it might just as well be done by oleic acid esters, for what happens next is that the victim is removed to the equivalent of the dead ant heap. This action is done quite automatically and mechanically, despite the fact that humans are purported to have considerably more than two million neurons. Nor, in this situation, will any amount of kicking and protest by the victim’s friends and associates change the societal label of “death” which has been officially affixed to the victim. At most, this sort of fuss may only succeed in calling out the hive’s enquiry squad, who will most likely respond to this stimulus by attempting yet again to deal with the victim in the standard way, with a trip to the cemetery. It is all thoroughly departmental.

A live ant which has been odiferously labeled as dead will be dragged back to the dead ant heap for as long as the human experimenter has the heart to keep applying the chemical. One wonders if humans are any more capable of learning than ants in this regard. Juliet is not dead, she just looks that way to Romeo — but the tragedy of misunderstanding seems forever inevitable. In theory this change is only a matter of attitudes, but the aggravations of trying to enlighten one’s society may sometimes be best understood only in the most heroic metaphor. Consider the scene when Jesus is told of the severe illness of Lazarus. “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth.” asserts Jesus. His audience is dubious, for Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. “By this time he stinketh,” the sister of Lazarus tells Jesus in the King James version. Of oleic acid esters, no doubt. As cryonicists we suddenly gain new insight here as to why Jesus weeps: these are not tears of sadness, but tears of frustration at being stuck in an ant farm.

What Can We Do?

The philosophy of cryonics is a way of looking at reality which may invite frustration and desperation of the highest order. The question that most concerns us is what can be done about this frustration. Perhaps the world of the entomologist can provide a modest lesson.

The first thing to remember is that bureaucracies behave inflexibly because bureaucracies have no brain, but instead are relatively simple machines operating, like an ant colony, by simple programming rules. Thus, in many cases, the mistreatment which individuals receive at the hands of the social mechanism is entirely impersonal — as impersonal as the behavior of insects who’ve gotten the wrong set of chemical cues (readers may recall this theme also strongly played out in another British movie, Brazil). Attorneys, through long experience, understand the essentially mechanical and impersonal nature of the legal system. One of the principal shocks which laymen have in coming into contact with the real world of police and correctional work, in fact, is the level of emotional detachment with which most of these functions are actually carried out. The passion which one has been led to expect from TV and movies is quite often simply missing.

All of this can make a difference in the way we, as cryonicists, perceive and deal with legal struggles such as those cryonics has faced over the years. In our personal lives the natural response to social attack is to counterattack or (at least) to withdraw from contact, particularly that in which requests for any help are made. Interestingly, often these are exactly the wrong steps to take when “attacked” by a bureaucracy, since this sort of attack may be quite impersonal and without much active malice. Instead, often the most productive course in this situation is to continue talking to the bureaucrats involved, and to put aside one’s pride and continue to ask services of the system in ways which are ever more creative. Retaliation and attempts at punitive action, too, are usually ineffective. Rather, just as social insects can be sent down futile paths by manipulating scent trails, manipulation of legal trails can be used to send the other side down blind legal alleys until everyone loses interest.

Of course, none of this is as satisfying as combat, and in the context of our social training it may not feel very natural to do. Amateur sociologist Eric Hoffer talks of the need for True Believers to feel persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and to some extent there is little doubt that persecution (or the feeling of it) builds cohesion in organizations. Also, the problem for cryonicists is complicated in that, with little doubt, in some circumstances we actually have been persecuted in the past. We all know that the reaction of individuals to the idea of cryonics proceeds from a very deep (and sometimes very negative) psychological level, and this can make it tempting to assume that all of the problems which cryonics has had with the legal system are due to the negative psychological reactions of individuals.

The point of this article, however, is that persecution should be left as a diagnosis of exclusion, while we attempt to solve our problems in other ways. One of the things which socially effective people come to realize sooner or later, is that in adversarial dealings with bureaucracies, individuals gain enormous power by deliberately draining all anger and emotion from each encounter, and spending that energy finding ways to apply for concessions and service. Hard as that may be to do in certain emergency situations, this is a lesson which still remains essential to cryonics. Insect societies provide the metaphor. Whether one is being dragged to the scrap heap because one has been sprayed with the wrong chemical, or because one has not been able to check the correct box on a State of California VS-9 form, it’s all pretty much the same mechanical thing. In either case, the problem is an intellectual puzzle, not an act of malice, and the long term answer is not physical or emotional struggle. Of course the system that carries out such actions is monumentally brainless. But if we ourselves are not capable of solving the problem by altering some simple programming within that system, then we ourselves will not deserve to be counted much brighter.

May we remember not to personalize simple stupidity. It’s a lesson we can learn from the ants.