The ant and the policeman

The G20 protests show that ants, with their amazing collective intelligence, could teach our police a thing or two

I've always liked ants. The only thing of note, as I remember it, in the original exhibition at the Millenium Dome was a Perspex-encased colony of 500,000 Trinidadian leaf-cutter ants, all striving tirelessly to do, well, something or other. Cut leaves I suppose. Anyway, it was distinctly preferable to the much-trumpeted "body" exhibition, the highlight of which was a kind of giant humanoid helter-skelter, without the slide. Oddly, you may remember the ant show was in something called the "mind zone". Odd because ants, in the usual sense of the word, are mindless. Magnificently so, but still mindless.

Police can be pretty mindless too. The succession of videos emerging from the G20 demonstrations shows this: one policeman after another, guided by God knows which ill-favoured intelligence, lashing out at retreating demonstrators with shields and batons, even dogs, collectively and individually intent on turning a largely peaceful and surprisingly well choreographed demonstration into a violent riot.

I've always liked policemen, though. I remember fondly the one who came to my primary school. It was a sunny day and the badge on his helmet dazzled us while he carried on about the value of police work in the community. He kept us rapt because he mentioned that he had something to give us after the talk, a surprise of some kind or other. I was seven and rather wishful. I pictured my friends and myself darting across the playground equipped with police-issue walkie-talkies. He gave us fluorescent yellow armbands. One each.

Thinking about it, though, policemen and ants could not be more different in the sense that where crowds of ants work with streamlined efficiency, crowds of policemen do not. This is not to say that ants are entirely unlike human beings. As I have learned from a new and excellent book called The Lives of Ants by Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon, ants bury their dead, enjoy dancing, have a fascination for modern, modular architecture and in some cases even keep pets.

The book's main focus is what Keller and Gordon term "swarm intelligence". In themselves, despite having proportionally the largest brain of any insect, individual ants are not clever. The males are the dumbest, employed exclusively for the sole purpose for which, in the opinion of many feminists, the males of all species are fit. The queens, despite their one moment of glory in growing wings and flying off to found a new city, as sometimes but not always happens, are not much better. Moreover, the exclusively female members of the workforce also turn out, in isolation, to be as clueless as the next clueless insect. It is only when they are acting under direct instructions to build, defend, destroy, etc – communicated through a vocabulary of around 20 pheromones – that the immense IQ of ants becomes evident. But under whose instructions are they acting?

People sometimes use the mindless brilliance of ants as an example of intelligent design theory, one of most common and least compelling so-called proofs for the existence of God. Oddly, though, in Judaeo-Christian mythology at least, it was man, not the ant, whom God fashioned in his own image. And yet in terms of the joined-up, everything-just-works excellence of nature that most intelligent designers have in mind, mankind is a miserable, self-defeating wreck, pouring its resources into self-destructive activities such as war and watching television, and concentrating its mental efforts on finding new ways to misunderstand the messages it receives from other members of the species.

Clearly, when it comes to practical intelligence, we have a lot to learn from ants. And indeed, a significant portion of Keller and Gordon's book is devoted to exploring what this might be, mostly from the point of view of robotics and logistics, both virtual and actual.

My question, though, is what policemen can learn from ants. Because, heaven knows, they don't learn much from themselves, apparently having failed to learn anything in particular from the experience of the Brixton riots, Steven Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes and so on. And this is despite the fact that chief constables, like football managers and social services directors, like nothing better than to talk about the lessons they're going to learn. But somehow they never make it to the classroom.

So what can policemen learn from ants? The answer is simple and has little, I feel, to do with the phenomenon of swarm intelligence. Crackly walky-talkies are no substitute for pheromones; and even if they were, ants' collective efficiency, when it comes to police work, is entirely brutal. When a foreign ant crosses the barricades, or a guilty female decides to have a go at procreation, the ant constables show no compassion whatsoever. Tired of kettling? Try being smothered, poisoned and unceremoniously eaten.

While ants have evolved ways of being together better than almost any other animate organism, human beings, for all their collective cackhandedness, have evolved a sense of self, of being individual. And while a kind of primitive compassion is hardwired into all creatures, it is from our awareness of others as individuals that our best qualities are drawn. To the extent that the police force consists of individuals – and individual policemen and women are, in my experience, usually rather nice – clearly, it should be kept that way.

But there is one thing the policemen can learn from ants. Women. Think of the testosterone-fuelled ranks of truncheon-waving, shield-bearing, braying coppers doing their best to turn climate protestors into poll-tax rioters. For crowd control, women, with their more audible voices, less confrontational gait and strange tendency to make good decisions, would do a much better job. Ask any ant and she'll tell you, it's a no-brainer.

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