Monday, January 23, 2012

Things with Stings

Last night as I arrived home, very late, I casually crushed a cockroach beneath my foot before I entered the house and did my whole evening-routine. This morning I got up at my usual time, did all my usual stuff listening to the gentle sound of rain on the roof, than fairly late in the morning - about eight or so - finally made it outside the front door to look at the world, with no thought of last night's conquest.

It was still there. But not quite where I had put it - it had moved about half a metre west of where it had died, and not under its own volition - it's insides had been smeared everywhere, and it was definitely in no state to move. The culprits? A swarm of small black ants, the very same species that co-pollinate my basil.

I sat down to watch, and to allow my thoughts to drift, a very productive way of thinking that I should indulge a bit more.

None of the smear of innards existed any more. Not only were there streams of ants taking individual bellyfuls of food back home, but there seemed to be a labour gang engaged in dissecting body-parts from the cockroach for easy transport: half-legs and things were wandering off in more or less random directions.

They reminded me, first, of a swarm of military busily at work all over an aircraft carrier. Then I thought no, and staying with the sea I saw them as salvage-divers on a deep-sea wreck somewhere. Then I started thinking of their shared memes, the over-thoughts that seem to inhabit all members of hive-colonies, and on cue my individual honey-bee turned up to pollinate the basil plant directly to the left of where I was sitting, Which took me to bees, and their over-thoughts, and their breeding patterns.

And it occurred to me that while we label their individual hive-matriarch the "queen", like each and every worker in a hive she isn't a queen at all - she is a slave to the oversoul of the hive. Once she starts breeding, she never sees the light of day at all, not unless the beekeeper deliberately opens up the hive. In nature, she is in darkness the rest of her life. Bloated, unable to move much, she even needs to be fed, she cannot feed herself. Hers is a life in chains, based on her productivity.

As long as she keeps pushing out thousands and thousands of eggs, her fellow-slaves will keep on feeding her. Her reproductive organs are subjected to constant over-use and overwork, until they are exhausted and production starts dropping, at which point the workers, her fellow-slaves, designate a few eggs as future queens, and invest some serious effort into nurturing her replacement(s).

No honour is accorded to her, as mother or monarch. She becomes expendable, and as the youngsters take flight in an orgy of sex, the hive pays attention to them, not her. Eventually, the old Queen is ignominiously ejected from the hive, still alive, to die nearby, unable to feed herself or fly. Like her workers' lives, hers is a life of slavery that is brought to an end when her usefulness to the colony runs out. There is no Centrelink to sustain her when she can no longer work, no social security or family or nursing home to feed her until she dies a "natural" death. There is only a brutal rejection at the end of her productive life.

She is not a queen - she is only a slave, a very specialised slave. A sex slave, if you like, certainly a reproductive slave.

So who, amongst ants and bees, is not a slave? As individuals, they are all slaves: slaves to reproduction, to home-building, to food-gathering, to raising young, to defence of the colony, even to air conditioning. There is not a single free ant, there is not a single free bee.

No one ant or bee makes decisions, no one ant or bee thinks, as we know thought. They are all driven by the whip of their community.

So how to bees know to swarm, some of them staying with one queen, the others with another? How do ants work out when and in what direction to move house with rain or animal disturbance threatens their home? Who makes the decisions about directions and distances, about settling down or moving on?

Perhaps each ant or bee is a neurone in a larger brain, linked by chemical or even psychic ties with each other free-standing ant or bee in its colony. Thinking could be done as a group, as an oversoul. This might equate with the sophisticated and co-ordinated flight-thinking done by massed flocks of hundreds of birds, too, or thousands of bats. Why aren't there mid-air collisions? You'd think that some bird somewhere would miss seeing at least someone flying alongside, below or above them; you'd think that some bat somewhere would miss or confuse the echo-traces of fast-moving bats around them. But I have never seen a single collision, even when a flock has been startled in flight by an explosion or a predator and suddenly goes into panic-mode.

Why not?

We are accustomed to thinking as individuals, but we think as groups, too. In Australia, we drive on the left side of the road (which is self-evidently the right side), and consider the right side of the road to be the wrong side. That was decided on by an individual a long time ago in the history of the car, and is followed by concensus, to keep us safe. There is no formal agreement about walking and footpaths, yet if I walk in the right side of a footpath, "oncoming traffic" scowls at me. (Guess who frequently walks in the right side, just to get people to re-evaluate what they do without thinking!)

On those occasions, I am an ant who has gone maverick, not paying attention to the thoughts of the group-mind. I am a bee who is off-course.

In another sense, we can develop lesser, more individual group-minds. I take part in a weekly meditation group. We all know each other, we rarely invite other people in. It happens, but it's occasional. We are all friends: I know I for one have a friendship with the group as a whole, and with each person in the group as individuals. which is somehow separate from our group friendship.

The pattern of the meditation is that one person will talk us all through a guided meditation, then at the end each of us will individually debrief, describing what we experienced and what we did, who we met and where we went. We are all very different people, and we all look at the world differently, but when we spent a few months building a non-physical environment for ourselves, there was a high degree of accord between us as to how it looked, and afterwards, things that hadn't been described by the leader but experienced by us all individually correlated very closely indeed.

So it is possible to develop a group mind. And Things With Stings are far, far better and more practised at doing it than we are.