1747: The Government of Ants

Mattias Merian AntsFrom William Gould’s An Account of English Ants (1747):

In whatever Apartment a Queen Ant condescends to be present, she commands Obedience and Respect and universal Gladness spreads itself through the whole Cell, which is expressed by particular Acts of Joy and Exultation. They have a peculiar way of skipping, leaping, and standing upon their Hind Legs, and prancing with the others. These Frolicks they make use of, both to congratulate each other when they meet, and to show their Regard for the Queen. Some of them gently walk over her, others dance round her, and all endeavor to exert their Loyalty and Affection. She is generally encircled with a Clutter of Attendants, who, if you separate them from her, soon collect themselves into a Body, and inclose her in the midst. Howsoever romantick this Description may appear, it may easily be proved by an obvious Experiment. If you place a Queen Ant with her Retinue under a Glass, you will in a few Moments be convinced of the Honour they pay, and Esteem they entertain for her. There cannot be a more remarkable Instance than what happened to a Black Queen, the beginning of last Spring. I had placed her with a large Retinue in a sliding Box, in the Cover of which was an Opening sufficient for the Workers to pass to and fro, but so narrow as to confine the Queen. A Corps was constantly  in waiting and surrounded her, whilst others went out in search of Provisions. By some Misfortune she died; the Ants, as if not apprised of her Death, continued their Obedience. They even removed her from one Part of the Box to another, and treated her with the same Court and Formality as if she had been alive. This lasted two Months, at the End of which the Cover being open, they forsook the Box, and carried her off.

George_II_1755-1767English humans were not as respectful to their monarch in 1747. King George II’s son Frederick, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, had set himself in opposition to his fatherinitially to protest his father’s refusal to increase his income. The opposition took on explicit political tones when he joined opponents of the king in Parliament, such as Whigs Lord Carteret and William Pulteneyand the tory leader Sir William Wyndham. This united opposition ultimately resulted in the retirement of Robert Walpole, the king’s loyal leader in Parliament, in 1742.

In his Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes had had this to say about ants:


Why Certain Creatures Without Reason, Or Speech, Do Neverthelesse Live In Society, Without Any Coercive Power

It is true, that certain living creatures, as Bees, and Ants, live sociably one with another, (which are therefore by Aristotle numbred amongst Politicall creatures;) and yet have no other direction, than their particular judgements and appetites; nor speech, whereby one of them can signifie to another, what he thinks expedient for the common benefit: and therefore some man may perhaps desire to know, why Man-kind cannot do the same. To which I answer,

First, that men are continually in competition for Honour and Dignity, which these creatures are not; and consequently amongst men there ariseth on that ground, Envy and Hatred, and finally Warre; but amongst these not so.

Secondly, that amongst these creatures, the Common good differeth not from the Private; and being by nature enclined to their private, they procure thereby the common benefit. But man, whose Joy consisteth in comparing himselfe with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent.

Thirdly, that these creatures, having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see any fault, in the administration of their common businesse: whereas amongst men, there are very many, that thinke themselves wiser, and abler to govern the Publique, better than the rest; and these strive to reforme and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into Distraction and Civill warre.

Fourthly, that these creatures, though they have some use of voice, in making knowne to one another their desires, and other affections; yet they want that art of words, by which some men can represent to others, that which is Good, in the likenesse of Evill; and Evill, in the likenesse of Good; and augment, or diminish the apparent greatnesse of Good and Evill; discontenting men, and troubling their Peace at their pleasure.

Fiftly, irrationall creatures cannot distinguish betweene Injury, and Dammage; and therefore as long as they be at ease, they are not offended with their fellowes: whereas Man is then most troublesome, when he is most at ease: for then it is that he loves to shew his Wisdome, and controule the Actions of them that governe the Common-wealth.

Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is Naturall; that of men, is by Covenant only, which is Artificiall: and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides Covenant) to make their Agreement constant and lasting; which is a Common Power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit.

Mattias Merian: Illustration for John Jonston’s Historia Naturalis (1657) (source)
John Shackleton: Portrait of King George II (c. 1755) (source)

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