They Might Be Giants
Smithsonian Exhibition Spotlights Complex Insects

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Aristotle declared man the political animal, though he allowed that ants, too, were social. They lacked language and the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and it seemed to him that unlike humans, ants also lacked leaders. They were a mute and undiscerning species, but they built elaborate societies and pursued common goals.

Ants come in and out of focus throughout history. Dr. Johnson, in his dictionary, declared them nothing more than critters who live "in great numbers together in hillocks" -- which doesn't even do them justice as mound builders. It certainly doesn't account for a fascinating piece of aluminum on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, made by pouring molten metal into the nest of a colony of Florida harvester ants.

The resulting cast, a cloudlike cluster of pancake-shaped rooms connected by tendrils curling deep into the earth, looks a bit like a bio-creepy sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. The ants obviously didn't survive this little exercise in revealing their hidden architecture, part of a small but absorbing new exhibition called "Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants." But they are doing better in another part of the show, where an ant farm made of clear plastic boxes and tubes hosts an industrious colony of leafcutter ants.

But mostly, ants are presented here in the photographs of Mark W. Moffett, an ecologist who has turned his expert lens on one of Earth's most consistently successful species. The camera zooms in and pans out, revealing microscopic details -- ferocious, hair-trigger mandibles and delicate antennae scoping out friend or foe in an ant's version of a handshake -- as well as the macroscopic impact that ants can have on the landscape.

One striking image, taken from an airplane in Paraguay, shows an intricate network of six-inch-wide "highways," radiating from giant nests, some of them 20 feet deep. It looks remarkably like some moderately populated agricultural region, seen from 35,000 feet at night, a patchwork of scattered clusters woven into delicate neural networks.

The exhibition's ick factor is perfectly calibrated to the sensibility of a 10-year-old: Killer swarms of ants dismember a frog, weaver ants "herd" other insects and milk them for their honeydew, a grasshopper stares into the jaws of death as an ant from Ecuador prepares to pounce. The analogy to human society implicit in the title, "Farmers, Warriors, Builders," is pursued a bit glibly in text panels that aim to keep the excitement level at video-game levels (if not video-game spellings): "Mortal Combat," "Turf Wars," "Deceiving the Enemy." Others seem aimed squarely at the busy, over-stressed parent: "Roadwork Ahead," "Traffic Jam," "We're Hungry!"

This is the multi-generational public exhibition mentality at work: Every show should have something that makes each member of the family say wow. Ants fight, ants work, ants make things. Ants are just like us: "Text messaging is out, but they have other ways to communicate . . . " Which would be pheromones, or chemical signals, something Aristotle never could have detected when he distinguished merely social animals from the social animal par excellence, man, who can speak.

Your interest in the show will depend on your ant literacy. Anyone who has vacationed in a rain forest, and watched the mesmerizing parade of leafcutter ants stream across the forest with their giant sails of green booty, will be happy to learn the real meaning of the processional. The leaf cuttings aren't supplies for some giant ant bacchanal, but will be used as a kind of compost, on which a mossy fungus is cultivated for food. The fungus is invaluable, the sole sustenance of the colony. Ants tending its production are often covered with a white fuzz of bacteria, which turns out to be a defense mechanism against yet another fungus lethal to the essential food fungus.

The educational level of the show is lighter than it needs to be, but then, the exhibition is in a transitional gallery filled with traffic exiting one of the museum's theaters. Still, one end of the show is dominated by a large painting of the scientist E.O. Wilson, the great expert on ants and avid exponent of historically controversial ideas about sociobiology. Next to the photograph is one of Wilson's microscopes, and the ensemble functions as a mini-shrine to the great Harvard icon who has laid claim to all things Ant.

But where is the discussion of his work? Less than a decade after Robert Frost wrote his famous 1936 ant poem, "Departmental," which made the species an analog for the ills of industrial mass society ("Ants are a curious race; One crossing with hurried tread/The body of one of their dead . . . "), Wilson was launched on his life's work, peering into the mysteries of these "little things who run the earth." Wilson's research has, in many ways, dissolved the white screen of ignorance about ants onto which philosophers and poets have projected their human analogies. His study of ant evolution also led to his larger claims about how natural selection works on the group level, which have fascinated and roiled humans like the ants in Ogden Nash's doggerel: "Would you be calm and placid/If you were full of formic acid?"

It would be nice to have Wilson's ideas present, rather than just an image of his avuncular countenance. But Moffett's photographs are an education in themselves, arresting and instructive, and they will appeal to anyone who has watched the busy wee thieves make off with the picnic's remains, or tortured an ant with a magnifying glass or simply wondered what it would be like to live in a vast, unthinking, unfeeling, subterranean megalopolis.

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