Theyocracy I: Ants and monkeys

H. Smiggy McStudge returns with the first proper instalment in his monograph on human history and the Myth of Government, and commands me to post it. I comply, reluctantly, in the hope that he may tell me where he has hidden the medication for my arthritic neck. —T. S.

Previous posts in the series:

‘The frightful landslide into Theyocracy’
Theyocracy: The argument
‘Dear verminous cretin’: Smiggy replies to a reader


 

Picture to yourselves, my little McStudges, a scene on the African savanna, something close to 200,000 years ago. The exact date and place do not matter. In fact, the exact place does not exist any longer; for in the great sweeping advances and retreats of the Sahara, every speck of soil on that spot has been scoured clean by the sands, and distributed over other parts of the globe. You will find no trace of the scene today.

There is perhaps a river in the distance, winding its lazy brown course across the land. Here, a scattering of acacia trees spread their distinctive flat-topped canopy over the grassland, bristling with thorns to keep off the giraffes. Over there, antelope are drinking warily at a water hole, with big cats lurking in wait to pick off the careless ones. The very grasses grow taller and taller, desperately clawing towards the light in deadly mutual competition, but the most successful stalks are rewarded by the grinding teeth of the herbivores. This is Nature, red in tooth and claw, and if it looks peaceful to a visitor, it is only because the visitor is too ignorant to see what is actually going on. The blood flows seldom, and the trees and grasses make no cry. But the violence is always there.

In the foreground are two species of social animals, one very ancient and successful, the other a new and doubtful experiment. For the most part, they remain blissfully unaware of each other’s presence; though each will try to prey on the other, in times of extreme hunger. They represent the two great models of social interaction in the animal kingdom, as it has been known until now. Let us pause a moment to examine them.

The successful animals are the ants. In one particular spot, not too far from the watering hole, they have built a mound several feet high. Ants labour ceaselessly, not in each other’s service – abominable thought – nor even in the service of the hive, but in mindless obedience to the pheromones of the Queen. They know each other by scent, and know their place in the colony by the same sense. There is no hierarchy among the ants; there are no greater or lesser rulers, no middle management. The commands of the Queen are detected by every ant in the hive, and obeyed by instinct.

It is customary among the humans, nowadays, to refer to the worker ants as female. We encourage them in this, for it is a half-truth. The best kind of half-truth is the one that satisfies a lazy mind; that looks like a whole truth when seen only from one side, and does not encourage the beholder to get up and walk round to see the error that is hidden from view. This particular half-truth is one of those. It took quite a long time for the humans, despite our best efforts, to understand the real inwardness of the ants and the utter alienness (to a vertebrate) of their sex lives. For the worker ants are female only potentially. While the Queen lives and commands, her pheromones suppress the development of their sex organs, and keep them chastened and obedient. It is quite ordinary for a Queen, or a group of closely related Queens, to rule 100,000 workers, warriors, and alates without the need of any intermediary class. Populations in the millions are not unheard of.

But ah, when the Queen dies! Then we see an amusing spectacle. The worker ants lose their tiny wits; they are no longer sure what to do; they are thrown back upon resources that they have never had to use before. Most will perish in the confusion. But a few will survive, by chance or by labour, long enough to outlast the lingering chemical enslavement of the Queen. They go through ant puberty; they are no longer merely potential females, but actual ones. The liberated ant takes the awful and momentous step into individuality. It becomes she, with all the awful changes that the introduction of a personal pronoun portends. She can make decisions for herself; she is under the influence of no pheromones but her own. One day, perhaps, ants will learn to live with their individuality and achieve individual deeds. Fortunately for the rest of us, that day has not yet come. For the ant is a creature of instinct, and at this point her instinct can tell her only one thing to do: to become a Queen herself. And so she wanders off to look for a place to build a colony of her own; and the cycle repeats, unchanged, in pointless iteration.

Now if we look up from the anthill, we will find a social animal many times larger: as if all the protoplasm, and all the brain cells, that go to make up a whole large ant colony, had been squashed together into a single monstrous being. From the ant’s point of view, this monster is put together all wrong. It has its armour on the inside and its soft flesh on the outside; its body is a cylindrical lump, not divided into neat functional segments. Its olfactory sense is weak; hardly any of its communications are accomplished by pheromones. Instead, it is just learning to signal to its fellows by a series of hideous grunts and squeals, all run together like the call of the kookaburra, but more varied in pattern, and consequently uglier.

This new animal, which looks so ominous and unpromising, is a primate; the latest model in a series of apes that have swept the plains in dizzying succession, only a few hundred thousand years apart. Our current ape is almost hairless, the result of a period some ages back when its ancestors learnt to swim. Its fat is distributed in a layer of blubber just under the skin, for the same reason. Another stage of the experiment altered its bones and muscles in aid of walking upright.

And it has an enormous brain: far bigger than any other animal of comparable body weight, and far beyond the needs of daily survival. This brain is a curse to it, in some respects, for the fully-formed head is much too big to pass through the birth canal of the female, and consequently the ape has to be born in a very unfinished state. It is helpless for many years after it is born, and the ties of kinship are very strong. Fathers are more important in this species than in the other apes, and the females have evolved an ingenious collection of snares to keep their mates present and helping while the young have time to mature. For instance, the female of this species is the only mammal which sports large and protuberant mammary glands even when it is not making milk; and one of the very few that are sexually receptive even when they are not in the fertile season. The importance of these facts will become evident later.

As a social primate, the new animal lives in tribes or troops. There is (as even the humans will eventually discover) a rough and ready correlation, more or less linear, between the size of a primate’s brain and the size of its tribe. The cleverest monkeys have enough brain-power to keep track of their individual relationships with about fifty of their near kin. When a tribe grows too large for the monkeys’ brains to handle, it has a lovely little civil war. There are so many monkeys that each one is no longer capable of caring about the others as individuals; does not even care if the remoter ones live or die. So it starts by flinging feces at those remote members of the tribe, and ends by killing them with a clean conscience. However, before that happens, the tribe generally reproduces by fission. (Earth creatures are all amoebas at heart.) One half of the monkeys take their ball and their bat and their feces, and go screeching away with their flat little monkey noses in the air, and start a new tribe somewhere else, in a better neighbourhood where they will not have to deal with all of that riff-raff they left behind.

The new model, the bald ape with the silly big brain, has enough neurons rubbing together to keep track of as many as 150 tribe brothers and sisters. Above that size, the tribe still becomes unmanageable. Even the new toy of grunts and squeals (which will one day be called language) doesn’t help very much, because when you put too many of the bald apes together, they will grunt and squeal mostly to hurl insults at each other. Insults carry farther than feces, and hurt more.

(We encourage the humans to recite a particularly stupid lie, starting when they are very small, so that they will grow up believing it: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.’ If you, my dear fellow McStudges, ever find yourselves annoyed by a human who actually believes this, here is how to hurt him with a name. By fair means or foul, but preferably by foul, get his fellow vermin to call him by the affectionate nickname, ‘Registered Sex Offender’. He may actually recognize the error of his beliefs then; though for our purposes, he will be much more amusing if he does not.)

These are the two models of social organization among the Earth animals: the hive and the tribe. In the hive, every animal is in a one-way relationship with the ruler, who does not care for any of them as individuals. In the tribe, every animal is in a two-way relationship with every other tribe member. But a third model is about to appear, among the bald apes solely; it will arise from their system of grunts and squeals, and it will be very good fun for us.

For these are not the only social creatures in the neighbourhood. Just over the hills – ‘over the hills and far away’, as foolish human poets will one day say, soothing themselves with the lie that what is obstructed from sight is too remote to hurt them – just over those hills, we are waiting. For we McStudges were there on the savanna in the beginning of the damned human race. We had interfered with them once or twice already; some of them will retain a kind of vague and distorted folk memory of it. One of their poets will actually compare us McStudges with serpents; which is a high compliment, for a serpent is a noble, cool-headed, and practical animal. At least, it would be a high compliment if it did not come from such a low source. We do not take cognizance of either praise or censure from the humans, any more than they take notice when their cousins, the monkeys, fling excrement at them from the trees.

The work on which you, my junior McStudges, are just now embarking, is a continuation of the work that those early McStudges were doing in their hunters’ blind beyond the hills. To understand your part in the scheme, you must know something about how the work began; and about what happened next.

 


(Stay tuned for the next episode: ‘The Joy of War’.)

 

 

Comments

  1. Stephen J. says:

    I am really enjoying the McStudge posts. I think you’d have a great 21st Century spiritual successor to Screwtape here.

    • Matt Osterndorf says:

      I’ve always read Smiggy as a sort of literary Screwtape. His recent foray into political “science” has been interesting.

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