Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but this eye-opening account will convince most readers that our biggest asset is our ability to be comfortable around strangers.
A research associate at the Smithsonian and a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Moffett (Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, 2010, etc.) points out that humans will walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice. A chimpanzee, wolf, lion, or mouse encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world, argues the author. We belong to a society Moffett defines as “a discrete group of individuals amounting to more than a simple family…whose shared identity sets them apart from other such groups and is sustained continuously across the generations.” Most animal colonies, flocks, herds, schools, packs, swarms, or prides are simply creatures getting together informally, but a small minority qualify as societies because members recognize who belongs and who doesn’t. These provide access to resources and protection; however, despite the popular belief, cooperation is optional among higher animals. Lions do not necessarily hunt as a team, and a chimpanzee feels no obligation to share food. The author leaves no doubt that ants form the only society rivaling that of humans, featuring mutual cooperation, division of labor, and self-sacrifice. Much of the book is a fascinating exploration of how members of human societies identify who belongs and why most believe that their society is superior. Flags, food, hairstyle, dress, and heroic founding myths (their truth is irrelevant) all play significant roles, and infants absorb the prejudices of the adults around them as effortlessly as they do language.
A delightfully accessible and ingenious series of lessons on humans and our societies.