Of Ants And Aliens And Us As Well
Ants are fascinating little insects. They wage wars, hunt in packs, enslave weaker rivals, herd livestock, tend gardens, build super highways, talk to each other, manage vast underground cities, and in some cases even have supercolonies spanning thousands of kilometers. The world's best-known myrmecologist, E.O. Wilson, considers ants the most socially sophisticated creatures on the planet after humans.
From an evolutionary perspective, ants are one of the most successful lifeforms ever to exist. According to best estimates, around 15,000 species of ants live on every continent except Antarctica. The actual number is likely much higher. They represent about half of insect biomass and almost a fifth of total terrestrial non-plant biomass. Ants play an essential role in just about every ecosystem they inhabit.
While great diversity exists between species, the basic design of the common ant has changed little over the last 100 million years. Some are bigger, others smaller, some are nomadic, while others build nests; some are hyper-aggressive warmongers, while others are reticent pacifists.
Argentine ants have taken advantage of human transportation networks to establish super colonies worldwide. If humans are the master disrupters of native ecosystems, Argentine ants are the insect world's equivalent. In Europe, one Argentine ant supercolony stretches for 6,000 kilometers along the Mediterranean Coast. Another, called "California Large," extends for 900 kilometers on California's coast. The island of Hokkaido in Japan hosts yet another massive supercolony.
If Mother Earth could talk, she would brag that ants, and not us, are one of her most remarkable success stories. The mighty dinosaurs came and went, wiped out by a cataclysm 65 million years ago. They ruled the Earth for tens of millions of years but could not adapt to that single traumatic event. Ants could. Ants always could. Mass extinctions have pruned the tree of life repeatedly; ice ages have advanced and retreated, and climates have shifted and varied wildly. Still, through it all, the mighty little ant found a way to endure and even prosper.
To put things in perspective, we homo sapiens have only been around for around 300,000 years in our current form, and the jury is out on the long-term evolutionary viability of our big-brained species. Sure, we're great at writing love songs, making monuments to ourselves, and pondering the origins of the universe. However, let's not forget that our short and brainy reign as the planet's dominant species is also doubling as an extinction-level event for everything else. We're good at that too.
Where will we be in a million years? An extinct but distinct blip in the fossil record? Or perhaps we will evolve into something as unrecognizable from our current form as we are from our evolutionary ancestors from two million years ago, Homo Erectus.
However, I'll wager that a million years from now, ants will still look like ants and be doing the same ants things they've already been doing for tens of millions of years. Indeed, Mother Nature would also tell us, after bragging at length about her amazing ants, that if it's not broke, don't fix it. Maybe just tweak it a bit here and there.
E.O. Wilson put it best when he said that, "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos." The little ant and its arthropod cousins do more to sustain the equilibrium of the natural world than we do at the moment.
Just a little perspective on our true place in the world.
While it's true that ants resemble us in many ways, those similarities are superficial at best. Ants are nothing like us. We are audio and visual creatures, while ants experience the world and communicate chemically. Human societies mostly organize around social hierarchies. A ruling class gives orders which everyone else follows. Ant colonies are not like this because no one is calling the shots.
Instead, it's organized anarchy, but it works because each ant is programmed to fulfill a role in the upkeep of the colony. An ant "queen" is actually a bit of a misnomer. She is in charge of nothing but playing the critical role of perpetuating the existence of the colony. It's better to call ant queens super mothers rather than reigning royalty. In any case, the workers take care of these super moms' every need, understanding that the colony's fate depends on her.
“Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species” - E.O. Wilson
Ants also waste no time on pointless existential subjects like philosophy and religion. They work selflessly for the colony from the moment they hatch until they die. Even after death, an ant may still provide a final meal for her surviving sisters. 'All for the colony!' would be an ant's motto.
Nevertheless, ants are so different that they might as well be aliens. And yet, they are not. We both inhabit branches, albeit distant ones, on the same evolutionary tree of life. Estimates put our common ancestor back some 500 million years in the past. As different as we are, ants and humans are the evolutionary offspring of the same Mother Earth.
Yet, we cannot even begin to understand what it is like to be an ant. In fact, aliens might be more like ants and less like us.
But before pulling that philosophical string, let's take a brief detour and talk about recent events in the wacky world of UFOs.
About Those UFOs
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - Carl Sagan
This gets us to the recent buzz about UFOs (also called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena - UAP / I'll stick with the more familiar UFO for this essay). What's different this time is that the US government acknowledges the authenticity of the Navy UFO videos. That's a significant shift. Not only that, but the government admitted that it had been quietly studying UFOs off and on for decades. These revelations take UFOs out of the realm of fringe kookery and anal probe jokes and plop them straight into the middle of acceptable mainstream discourse. We do indeed live in interesting times.
I take this as an example of what happens when those in the elite media are intrigued by something. After all, they set the narrative. When a previously taboo topic makes it to the front page of the New York Times, then it becomes something that must be taken seriously by serious people who have serious academic credentials and think serious thoughts and have the kind of serious credibility to determine what topics are serious enough for we in the dimwitted masses to ponder. And so here we are, pondering UFOs with a straight face because they said we could. If the government can talk about UFOs, well, then so can The New Yorker, CNN, CBS, NBC, Fox, and just about everyone else. The public laps it up because, let's be honest, UFOs are fun to talk about.
To use a word that has probably exceeded its expiration date over the last few years in a more political context, this credibility-reinforcing symbiosis between media and government has 'normalized' UFOs. The New York Times picked the story up back in 2017 with the leaked Navy UFO videos. The Pentagon then confirmed the authenticity of those videos, which stirred things up even more. In May 2021, The New Yorker's Gideon Lewis-Kraus published a long and nuanced 13,000-word article that delicately mixed mild skepticism with hopeful credulity.
The latest sensation stems from three US Navy videos. The three videos, entitled "GoFast," "FLIR," and "Gimbal" recorded UFO encounters by pilots from two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Keep in mind: The government merely acknowledged the authenticity of the videos. It did not take a position other than to say that objects tracked by the pilots were unidentified. Ah, but that hint of uncertainty was an opening for wild speculation, and stoking wild speculation is the Internet's superpower.
"So...you're saying it might be aliens?"
What about it, then? Are these aliens that we're seeing? While it's not totally impossible (note my own obligatory hint of uncertainty), there are reasons to be very skeptical. All three Navy videos have plausible natural explanations that don't involve aliens. However, those don't garner the same coverage as the more provocative headlines. The point of this essay is not to do a deep dive into the current state of the UFO debate (I'll leave some videos down below that do just that for those interested in exploring this further).
That said, the more I researched this piece, the more my doubts grew once I went beyond the headlines. What I found was a suspicious lack of corroborating, slam-dunk evidence that would satisfy congenital doubters like me. Not only that, but I kept seeing the same names of true believers like Luis Elizondo and former Navy pilot David Fravor doing the interview circuits. Many articles were being written about the UFO sightings, and these two guys were almost always the ones getting interviewed. I would add that both are convinced that these are extraterrestrial craft.
Also, I take eyewitness testimony with a grain of salt, even from Navy pilots. Yes, I know, if one profession in the world comes baked in with a lot of credibility, it would be a Navy fighter pilot. They're brave, quick of reflex, eagle-eyed, and the epitome of technical and tactical competence. I get that. But they're also human and given to the same foibles that plague us all in dynamic sensory environments. If I've learned anything over the years, it's that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable. Just because someone says they saw something, and they believe it with all their heart, does not mean they actually saw what they thought they did. Carl Sagan was correct that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Eyewitness testimony and subjective interpretations of infrared images are not enough.
A little common sense reasoning should sow some doubts.
First, why are we only ever able to get grainy video footage in a world filled with hundreds of millions of high-resolution cameras and video recorders attached to mobile phones? This includes the thousands of daily commercial flights filled with passengers equipped with mobile phones capable of filming and photographing things in high resolution. That's certainly not the case with the Navy videos or any other recent UFO sightings. We have no clear images of these UFOs despite all the brouhaha over the last few years. Are the aliens hiding? Well, obviously not since our pilots (and apparently only our pilots) have no problems tracking them.
Consider this: If the aliens are so advanced they can break the laws of physics and travel to Earth from some distant star system, they surely have the technology to remain hidden if that is what they want. Still, all we get are the usual smudges and blurs and eyewitness testimonies, all open to endless interpretation, making them the aerial equivalent of Big Foot sightings. Such vague evidence then lets people use their imaginations to fill in the gaps to reach whatever conclusions they were already primed to make.
For many, the default quickly goes straight to aliens as an answer, no matter how many caveats come with the reporting that tells readers otherwise. And why not? Hollywood, video games, and the Internet combine to create convincing pseudo realities where such things seem plausible. We spend so much time in these pseudo realities that some eventually have trouble separating the natural world from the fictional ones they encounter online. It's another example of that innate human trait to stir in some fantasy with our facts because fantasy makes the world so much more palatable than it otherwise would be. We've come so far with science and reason, or so we believe, and yet UFOs have become the modern world's fairies and pixies.
Belief In Aliens Near And Far
There's something else at work here. Belief in alien-piloted UFOs fills an existential need to believe in something more. As religion declines in the West, surrogate beliefs are competing to fill that void, including conspiracy theories, identity-based political ideologies on both the far left and right and, yes, aliens visiting us. What we often get on the topic of visiting extraterrestrials is an astronomical variation of the classic God in the Gaps argument.
Here creationists find evidence for God in the gaps of our scientific understanding of evolution. The problem for creationists all the way back to Darwin's time is that those mysterious gaps have constantly been shrinking as science relentlessly explains evolution's mysteries. If God is in those gaps, he's feeling pretty cramped at this point.
I believe something similar is going on here. Call this the Alien in the Gaps argument that takes unexplained aerial phenomena and then interprets them as aliens. However, ufologists run into the same epistemological quandary as creationists. The more science can fill our knowledge gaps, the better we can scrutinize and debunk these UFO claims. As a rule of thumb with UFOs, the more unambiguous the data we have, the less likely any extraterrestrial visitor hypothesis becomes. Over the years, science has debunked thousands of UFO claims, and not a single one has yet proven to be true. Some remain unresolved, yes, but mainly because the evidence is too weak to reach any definitive conclusions. Ufology relies on this ambiguity to survive.
However, I want to make a distinction. Arguing for life somewhere out there in the universe is very different from saying that aliens are visiting us today in high-tech Tic Tacs (I refrain from using spacecraft because, so far, strangely, all of these sightings have been in our atmosphere). The former represents educated speculation that could be answered in the future by scientific advances, maybe even sooner rather than later by the long-overdue James Webb Telescope scheduled to launch (hopefully) sometime soon. Likewise, the budding field of astrobiology explores how life might appear elsewhere given certain conditions.
It's not crazy to hypothesize that intelligent life exists elsewhere. According to astronomers, our own Milky Way galaxy has about 100 billion stars in a universe with an estimated 2 trillion other galaxies, each galaxy containing tens or hundreds of billions of stars. Best estimates say the universe has ten billion trillion habitable planets. How many of those have habitable planets that developed advanced technological civilizations similar to ours? Perhaps not many, but "not many" when discussing numbers this large could still come out to millions, or even billions, of civilizations in the observable universe.
We See Us
Finally, I want to argue something else here: truly intelligent aliens will be as inscrutable as ants are to us. If the human tendency to indulge in fantasy is powerful, as I argue it is, it's also strangely impoverished. Our fantasies tend to create variations of us. German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach once argued that a culture's version of God (or gods) is merely a projection of that culture's values. In other words, a kind of mirror. If you want to get in the head of society, study its religion.
This can apply to how we imagine aliens to be. The Star Trek and Star Wars cinematic universes contain more or less humanoid species of extraterrestrials who walk and talk and fight and fly spaceships, just like us. They are aliens created in our image. Yet, it's likely far from reality. We're only able to take what we know and then reconfigure it like Legos to create new fantastical beings, but beings that are kind of like us. We can't imagine something we cannot even conceive.
To understand the gulf between us and other complex life out there in the universe, consider humans and ants again. We share the same planet and sometimes even the same homes. We're also both sophisticated social creatures. Still, what it's like to be an ant is utterly incompressible to us. To observe an ant colony's behavior can be an existentially mind-bending exercise. Each ant is a nearly mindless automaton, or so she seems living as she does immersed in a neurochemical social world from which we are completely locked out. She devotes her life to the colony and her sisters. With thousands of ants working together in perfect harmony, an ant colony is a biological symphony perfectly synchronized to its environment.
But try and explain a musical symphony to an ant. Explain social class to an egg-laying ant queen and her worker offspring who hatch into castes dedicated entirely to the colony's survival. Sit down sometime and engage in an exchange of ideas with the ants in your backyard. It's absurd because while ants and humans co-exist on this Earth as fellow social creatures, we remain utterly unintelligible to each other. We co-exist but don't share co-consciousness. They do ant things, and we do human things, and rarely do the two overlap except when we get in each others' way. We are hopelessly other to each other.
Perhaps we put too much of a premium on our version of intelligence, assuming that it gives us better access to deeper realities than more "primitive" creatures get. When you consider how impoverished our sensory experience of the world is, say, compared to the nose and ears of a wolf, the eyes of a falcon, the tentacles of an octopus, the songs of humpback whales, and yes, even the sophisticated chemical choreography of ants, then our intelligence starts to seem like just another evolutionary adaptation among many. 'Better' and 'primitive' in this context are deceptively relative terms.
I want to argue that aliens, wherever they might exist, will be orders of magnitude even more incomprehensible than our fellow life on Earth. They will have bloomed on a unique evolutionary tree with conditions fine-tuned to the exceptional circumstances of their planet. That's certainly been the case with us. Consider the just-so conditions of our own situation: a moon of just the right size that stabilizes the Earth's rotation and its climate, the just-right age and size of our star, neither too young and cool, nor too old and hot. Then there's the just-right age of our planet, old enough to have evolved complex life but not so old that our life-giving Sun is baking it. These unique circumstances and more led to me typing these words and you reading them at this very moment.
Similarly, the cosmic variables in which intelligent life may manifest itself elsewhere in the universe are likely immense. Not only that, but the adaptations that alien life might have to undergo to thrive in its environment might be radically different from our own. Those variations may be such as to create intelligent life that is mystifying to pondering apes like us. Yes, we are highly intelligent, at least in some ways, but what other manifestations of refined intellect are out there that we cannot even conceive and that might make our intelligence seem as unimpressive as an ant's is to us?
Now factor in the possibility that these aliens are hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years older and more advanced than us, and you get potentially yawning gaps of sentience that dwarf even that between ants and humans. Some astronomers like Seth Shostak with SETI speculate that any highly advanced space-faring extraterrestrials won't even be alive anymore. Instead, they will exist as some form of post-biological AI able to overcome the tyranny of time and distance. Those two factors make interstellar travel all but impossible for biologically-based lifeforms like us. If that is the case, maybe an advanced intelligence would see us the way we see ants. In other words, it may notice us and then conclude that we are too primitive or unintelligible to engage with. Maybe they'll study us from a distance or ignore us altogether, just like we do with ants.
The latter scenario was the premise of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's 1972 science fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. The story happens in the aftermath of a two-day extraterrestrial encounter called "The Visitation," which took place in six small zones around the world. During the visit, no one saw the aliens or was able to make contact. They came and went without even acknowledging us, leaving behind the debris of technologies so far beyond our understanding as to seem like magic.
One of the characters, Dr. Valentine Pilman, offered an analogy to help explain the extraterrestrial visit to his colleague.
“A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras … A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about … Scattered rags, burntout bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp … and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow …”
In this analogy, we are the simple forest critters terrified by this encounter with strange visitors and their mysterious artifacts. In Roadside Picnic, Dr. Pilman speculates that the aliens were just passing through on their way to some other unknowable elsewhere and remained as blissfully unaware of our existence as the forest picnickers were unaware of the wildlife they were disrupting. Maybe we're like ants to everyone else out there in the cosmos. That's a sobering thought.
- Below is a marvelous documentary by the David Attenborough as he follows a few colonies of Swiss wood ants. If you want an entertaining one-hour snapshot of all that is amazing and bizarre about ants, the let Sir Attenborough be your guide.
- Mick West's excellent Youtube channel is one of the best UFO (and other things) debunkers out there. He's smart, great with math, and his natural explanations for the Navy UFO videos will sow doubt in even the most credulous UFO true believer.
- Cool Worlds is a great Youtube channel run by Profession David Kipping that focuses on the big questions in astronomy, including the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. I would assess his position as agnostic about the prevalence of intelligence life elsewhere. We could be an extremely rare phenomenon in the universe, or even...gasp...the only iteration of intelligent life out there. Here are some must-watch videos that will expand your mind and put things in perspective. After watching these videos, you may feel that the idea of alien-piloted spacecraft buzzing our fighter pilots is highly unlikely.