The Ant is a Fraud

It seems to me that in the mat­ter of in­tel­lect the ant must be a strangely over­rated bird. Dur­ing many sum­mers, now, I have watched him, when I ought to have been in bet­ter busi­ness, and I have not yet come across a liv­ing ant that seemed to have any more sense than a dead one. I refer to the or­di­nary ant, of course; I have had no ex­pe­ri­ence of those won­der­ful Swiss and African ones which vote, keep drilled armies, hold slaves, and dis­pute about re­li­gion. Those par­tic­u­lar ants may be all that the nat­u­ral­ist paints them, but I am per­suaded that the av­er­age ant is a sham. I admit his in­dus­try, of course; he is the hard­est-work­ing crea­ture in the world—when any­body is look­ing—but his leather-head­ed­ness is the point I make against him. He goes out for­ag­ing, he makes a cap­ture, and then what does he do? Go home? No—he goes any­where but home. He doesn’t know where home is. His home may be only three feet away—no mat­ter, he can’t find it. He makes his cap­ture, as I have said; it is gen­er­ally some­thing which can be of no sort of use to him­self or any­body else; it is usu­ally seven times big­ger than it ought to be; he hunts out the awk­wardest place to take hold of it; he lifts it bod­ily up in the air by main force, and starts; not to­ward home, but in the op­po­site di­rec­tion; not calmly and wisely, but with a fran­tic haste which is waste­ful of his strength; he fetches up against a peb­ble, and in­stead of going around it, he climbs over it back­ward drag­ging his booty after him, tum­bles down on the other side, jumps up in a pas­sion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moist­ens his hands, grabs his prop­erty vi­ciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a mo­ment, turns tail and lugs it after him an­other mo­ment, gets mad­der and mad­der, then presently hoists it into the air and goes tear­ing away in an en­tirely new di­rec­tion; comes to a weed; it never oc­curs to him to go around it; no, he must climb it; and he does climb it, drag­ging his worth­less prop­erty to the top—which is as bright a thing to do as it would be for me to carry a sack of flour from Hei­del­berg to Paris by way of Stras­burg steeple; when he gets up there he finds that that is not the place; takes a cur­sory glance at the scenery and ei­ther climbs down again or tum­bles down, and starts off once more—as usual, in a new di­rec­tion. At the end of half an hour, he fetches up within six inches of the place he started from and lays his bur­den down; mean­time he has been over all the ground for two yards around, and climbed all the weeds and peb­bles he came across. Now he wipes the sweat from his brow, strokes his limbs, and then marches aim­lessly off, in as vi­o­lently a hurry as ever. He does not re­mem­ber to have ever seen it be­fore; he looks around to see which is not the way home, grabs his bun­dle and starts; he goes through the same ad­ven­tures he had be­fore; fi­nally stops to rest, and a friend comes along. Ev­i­dently the friend re­marks that a last year’s grasshop­per leg is a very noble ac­qui­si­tion, and in­quires where he got it.

Ev­i­dently the pro­pri­etor does not re­mem­ber ex­actly where he did get it, but thinks he got it “around here some­where.” Ev­i­dently the friend con­tracts to help him freight it home. Then, with a judg­ment pe­cu­liarly antic (pun not in­tended), they take hold of op­po­site ends of that grasshop­per leg and begin to tug with all their might in op­po­site di­rec­tions. Presently they take a rest and con­fer to­gether. They de­cide that some­thing is wrong, they can’t make out what. Then they go at it again, just as be­fore. Same re­sult. Mu­tual re­crim­i­na­tions fol­low. Ev­i­dently each ac­cuses the other of being an ob­struc­tion­ist. They lock them­selves to­gether and chew each other’s jaws for a while; then they roll and tum­ble on the ground till one loses a horn or a leg and has to haul off for re­pairs. They make up and go to work again in the same old in­sane way, but the crip­pled ant is at a dis­ad­van­tage; tug as he may, the other one drags off the booty and him at the end of it. In­stead of giv­ing up, he hangs on, and gets his shins bruised against every ob­struc­tion that comes in the way. By and by, when that grasshop­per leg has been dragged all over the same old ground once more, it is fi­nally dumped at about the spot where it orig­i­nally lay, the two per­spir­ing ants in­spect it thought­fully and de­cide that dried grasshop­per legs are a poor sort of prop­erty after all, and then each starts off in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion to see if he can’t find an old nail or some­thing else that is heavy enough to af­ford en­ter­tain­ment and at the same time val­ue­less enough to make an ant want to own it.

There in the Black For­est, on the moun­tain­side, I saw an ant go through with such a per­for­mance as this with a dead spi­der of fully ten times his own weight. The spi­der was not quite dead, but too far gone to re­sist. He had a round body the size of a pea. The lit­tle ant—ob­serv­ing that I was notic­ing—turned him on his back, sunk his fangs into his throat, lifted him into the air and started vig­or­ously off with him, stum­bling over lit­tle peb­bles, step­ping on the spi­der’s legs and trip­ping him­self up, drag­ging him back­ward, shov­ing him bod­ily ahead, drag­ging him up stones six inches high in­stead of going around them, climb­ing weeds twenty times his own height and jump­ing from their sum­mits—and fi­nally leav­ing him in the mid­dle of the road to be con­fis­cated by any other fool of an ant that wanted him. I mea­sured the ground which this ass tra­versed, and ar­rived at the con­clu­sion that what he had ac­com­plished in­side of twenty min­utes would con­sti­tute some such job as this—rel­a­tively speak­ing—for a man; to wit: to strap two eight-hun­dred-pound horses to­gether, carry them eigh­teen hun­dred feet, mainly over (not around) boul­ders av­er­ag­ing six feet high, and in the course of the jour­ney climb up and jump from the top of one precipice like Ni­a­gara, and three steeples, each a hun­dred and twenty feet high; and then put the horses down, in an ex­posed place, with­out any­body to watch them, and go off to in­dulge in some other id­i­otic mir­a­cle for van­ity’s sake.

Sci­ence has re­cently dis­cov­ered that the ant does not lay up any­thing for win­ter use. This will knock him out of lit­er­a­ture, to some ex­tent. He does not work, ex­cept when peo­ple are look­ing, and only then when the ob­server has a green, nat­u­ral­is­tic look, and seems to be tak­ing notes. This amounts to de­cep­tion, and will in­jure him for the Sun­day-schools. He has not judg­ment enough to know what is good to eat from what isn’t. This amounts to ig­no­rance, and will im­pair the world’s re­spect for him. He can­not stroll around a stump and find his way home again. This amounts to id­iocy, and once the dam­ag­ing fact is es­tab­lished, thought­ful peo­ple will cease to look up to him, the sen­ti­men­tal will cease to fon­dle him. His vaunted in­dus­try is but a van­ity and of no ef­fect, since he never gets home with any­thing he starts with. This dis­poses of the last rem­nant of his rep­u­ta­tion and wholly de­stroys his main use­ful­ness as a moral agent, since it will make the slug­gard hes­i­tate to go to him any more. It is strange, be­yond com­pre­hen­sion, that so man­i­fest a hum­bug as the ant has been able to fool so many na­tions and keep it up so many ages with­out being found out.

The ant is strong, but we saw an­other strong thing, where we had not sus­pected the pres­ence of much mus­cu­lar power be­fore. A toad­stool—that veg­etable which springs to full growth in a sin­gle night—had torn loose and lifted a mat­ted mass of pine nee­dles and dirt of twice its own bulk into the air, and sup­ported it there, like a col­umn sup­port­ing a shed. Ten thou­sand toad­stools, with the right pur­chase, could lift a man, I sup­pose. But what good would it do?


shy;ture, as I have said; it is genshy;hen

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