“Man is a wolf to man,” say so many moody antiheroes in gritty dramas. Humans cheat and hurt each other constantly, and economists and cynics say we’re selfish by nature. So it’s no surprise that the rich exploit the poor, or that corporations destroy the environment. Right?
Except even wolves aren’t wolves to each other. Wolves live in packs, where they sacrifice their own immediate desires for the needs of the group. So maybe it’s time to stop thinking of humans as lone wolves. Lisa Krall, an economics professor at the SUNY Cortland, thinks that another animal tells us more about modern human nature: the ant.
A few years ago, a colleague started talking to Krall about ants.
“Do you think that it’s possible that the evolutionary dynamic of these species of insect has any similarity to humans when humans made the transition to agriculture?” he asked her.
“I guess I was crazy enough to say, ‘Well, yeah, that’s possible. Why don’t we look at it?'” Krall replied.
Here’s why: Back in the day, humans all lived in small, hunter-gatherer bands. But then people started farming, dividing up work and developing cities. That’s pretty weird for mammals, but not so unusual for ants or termites.
“I’ll take the example of the leaf cutter ant,” Krall explained in a podcast. “They cut and harvest leaves, and then they feed the leaves to their fungal gardens, and they themselves then feed on the fungal gardens,” she said. The ants “develop into vast, vast colonies that have highly developed, profound divisions of labor.” Sound familiar?
“Humans have a capacity for dividing up tasks, communication, and that sort of thing that lends itself to engaging an agricultural economy,” Krall continued.
But don’t hold hands around the world quite yet. Being so good at working together has a dark side.
“The individual becomes more of a cog in the machine of producing those annual grains and keeping the society going,” Krall said. “So people are more alienated. They have less personal autonomy. In humans, these societies became extraordinarily hierarchical.”
That means you end up with a few people in charge, and a lot of people serving them.
“After the onset of agriculture, you get the development of these large-scale state societies, where probably the majority of people lived in some realm of servitude,” Krall said. “That’s not a liberating thing.”
Being so wrapped up in human society also separates people from nature.
“It sets humans up to have this kind of oppositional relationship with the non-human world,” Krall said. “We manipulate and control it and dominate it.”
People aren’t evolved to fight nature. Humans evolved to be part of their environment. They spent most of their history as members of small tribes, living in and depending on other animals and plants.
“On the one hand, we do best embedded in a robust other-than-human world. We do best, we’re healthiest in that kind of world,” Krall said. “And yet we have this strange part of our social evolution now that has taken us on tract which is going to destroy every bit of the non-human world before we’re done.”
Humans don’t hurt each other or the planet because we’ve wolves on the inside, Krall says. It’s the opposite: people were so cooperative that they created a human-centric world. Lone wolves don’t build cities.
“We engaged a kind of social evolution, that started with agriculture, that put us on a path of expansion and interconnectedness and ultimately, in humans, hierarchy, and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “That is a really difficult path to disengage now … Ten thousand years later, can we honestly say that global capitalism and expansionary, highly interconnected systems are a good thing? No. But that’s where we’ve ended up.”
It gets worse.
“People need to understand that evolution is not necessarily about perfection. It can’t see ahead. And it is quite possible that we’ve been placed on an evolutionary dead end,” she said. “When people ask me what my research is, I say, ‘Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that humans evolved like ants and we’re screwed.’ I get deer in the headlights eyes. Like, ‘What!?'”
I know, this all seems depressing. But don’t sob into your screen yet. Because humans aren’t actually ants.
“We also have things that ants and termites don’t have. We have institutional fabric, private property laws, the development of markets, methods of redistribution of income …” Krall said. “The creation of institutions and technological change makes us very different than ants and termites.”
Krall says that people should start thinking seriously about letting students go to college without ending up in debt, creating more affordable healthcare and other social safety nets if they want to change the system.
“Then people are able to think more critically about what they do,” she continued. “Because right now people are so harried and worried and stressed that it’s hard for them to stop and hear a bird song, you know?”
Perhaps once people have the time and energy to figure out what sort of society they want and how they want to treat the planet, they can put their amazing cooperative powers to good use and make their vision happen.
“We have this infinite variety of cultures that we can adopt,” Krall explained. “Through reflection, we can try to create different institutions, try to create change, and try to create different incentives and a different kind of system.”
An ecological economist says humans have been thinking about themselves all wrong.