A School for Ants?

school-for-ants Can we build a school for ants?

By which I mean: can we build a community in which people (both students and faculty) are deeply and meaningfully connected with one another, even to the extent of functioning together as a single organism?

This topic of eusociality (sometimes spelled “ultrasociality”) is in vogue in the evolutionary wing of the social sciences. Thinkers like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt have noted that scientists have gone down a bit of a dead end. Traditionally, they’ve tried to explain the success of Homo sapiens in terms of the features of individuals — opposable thumbs, say, or freakishly large brains.

But, suggest Wilson and Haidt, if we take a big-picture look at our species as it compares to the rest of the animal kingdom, one obvious difference is that we’re ultrasocial: unlike all but a handful of critters, we’re able to live in enormous communities which divide labor. We’re built to be social.

Our “groupishness,” these thinkers suggest, is at the core of our human nature. We are (as Russell Genet has puckishly put it) “the chimpanzees who would be ants.” (Ants, of course, have taken this path to the nth degree, so much so that entomologists kick around the notion that the community of ants itself might be itself considered a single “superorganism.”)

So, if we’re set on building a “school for humans,” trying to leverage human nature for all it’s worth, how can we capitalize on this deep aspect of human nature?

Obviously, we can’t command this into existence: community arises organically when the right people are in the right spaces doing the right things. Let’s leave the question of the “right people” (what sorts of students are we imagining when we talk about our school, anyway?) for a future discussion.

Right now, what are the right spaces? That is, how can the built environment (room design, campus design) contribute to cohesiveness? And what are the right actions? What activities can we have students and faculty doing that will encourage close-knittedness?

A few other questions —

  • Where can we look to for examples of this — what groups already do this well? (The military, for example? Sports teams? Benedictine monasteries? Prison gangs?)
  • What would be the advantages to doing this — of having a school be more than just a place folk show up to, chat with friends at, and leave? (And would there be any disadvantages?)
  • Is this sort of community good for all students?  Are there some personality types, for example, that wouldn’t benefit from being enmeshed in a close-knit community?
  • And, provided we think it good to move toward this, how will we know when we’ve achieved it? That is, how does one measure sociality?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA