What humble termites teach us about humanity

Destructive: Every year, termites cause up to $30 billion in damage in the US alone.

Should we be more like termites? The insects are one of Earth’s most successful species. And philosophers and scientists have found some surprising parallels between their society and ours.

With their bulbous, eyeless heads and their translucent bodies revealing a mess of insect guts, termites seem hard to love. They lack the charisma of bees, nor are they as famed for hard work as ants.

Think again. The 3,000 plus termite species constitute some of the most amazing creatures on Earth.

First, those magnificent mounds. They can reach as high as 30 feet. Proportional to a termite’s size, this is the equivalent of humans building something twice as tall as the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world. Inside these Gaudiesque mounds are intricate structures of tunnels, archways and even spiral staircases.

But termites do not live in them. A colony, which may include up to a million individuals, lives in a nest that is a metre or so beneath the mound. They build the mound in order to breathe. Like us, they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The mound is the colony’s lung, managing the exchange of gases.

Like ants, bees and wasps, termite colonies are divided between sterile “workers” and “soldiers” and fertile “kings” and “queens”. A termite queen has a longer lifespan than any other insect — up to 50 years — and they can produce 10 million eggs every year.

Termites are astonishingly industrious. They do not sleep and are able to convert dead plant matter into energy. Some scientists believe that harnessing that ability could help solve the world’s energy crisis.

In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud presented a termite mound as an example of the “perfect sublimation of the individual will to the demands of the group”. This sublimation, he said, would always elude humans.

The Russian philosopher and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin viewed the cooperative habits of termites as a model, and a scientific basis, for communism.

But other thinkers draw parallels between termite colonies and more hierarchical structures. The 18th century biologist Henry Smeathman viewed the workers as “voluntary subjects” who served the “happy pair” of the king and queen.

How much can termites teach us?

Bugs life

Loads, say some. By dividing their society into different roles, termites achieve a broader equality that humans (and other mammals) fail to match. Termites are paragons of self-sacrifice. The collective comes before the individual. The result? Despite their apparent simplicity, they have produced thriving societies.

The American entomologist William Wheeler disagrees. He views termites as an “evolutionary cul-de-sac” which foretells “the eventual state of human society”: “very low intelligence combined with an intense and pugnacious solidarity of the whole.” Humans thrive thanks to individualism; collectivism is the enemy of progress.

You Decide

  1. How similar are termites to humans?
  2. Which is more important: the individual or the collective?

Activities

  1. Draw a diagram of a termite, labelling the most important features.
  2. Research another animal that you believe humans could learn from. Write 500 words on why.

Some People Say...

“I’ve always felt that specialisation is best left to the insects.”

Gregory Benford

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Termites are classified as Isoptera and they evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches. They are detritivores, which means they feed on decomposing plants and animals. Only 26 termite species are invasive pests. The combined weight of all the world’s termites is 10 times greater than the combined weight of every human.
What do we not know?
There are still hundreds of termite species that have not yet been described. We also do not know whether termites could ever really produce renewable energy for human consumption.

Word Watch

As high as 30 feet
Before the Europeans arrived, the highest termite mound was taller than any man-made structure in sub-Saharan Africa.
Burj Khalifa
Located in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is a staggering 829.8 metres high — more than 300 metres taller than Taipei 101, the world’s second tallest building. However, it may not keep the crown for much longer, as a tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will overtake it once complete.
Gaudiesque
A reference to Antoni Gaudí, the Spanish architect who designed the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral.
Up to a million individuals
The most populous termite colony ever recorded actually contained five million individuals, but this is highly exceptional.
Sigmund Freud
An Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis. He was one of the first people to study the unconscious mind in detail.
Entomologist
Entomology is the study of insects.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.