Social Insects Can Wage Total War

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Two Plectroctena ants fighting over territory in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikicommons under GFDL 1.2)

When It Comes to Waging War, Ants and Humans Have a Lot in Common
by Mark W. Moffett, Undark Magazine Smithsonian.com

Look closely enough, and you’ll find that modern societies resemble those of certain ants much more than our nearest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo. No chimp has to create highways, traffic rules, and infrastructure; participate in assembly lines and complex teamwork; or allocate a labor force for effective division of labor — the list goes on.

The reason is that societies of all species have organizational imperatives that depend on size, and only humans and certain social insects have populations that can explode into the millions. A chimpanzee community with a hundred members, for example, doesn’t address public health issues, but some ant metropolises have sanitation squads. Whether assembled largely by intelligent thought (in humans) or genetic inheritance (in ants), certain features are needed before many individuals can live together harmoniously over the long term.

The flip side is that the larger the group, the more diverse — and extreme — the aggressive responses to outsiders can be. When considering the often-striking similarities between humans and social insects, one fascinating parallel is the existence of warfare in both.

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