journalism & travel writing





Ants and peace

My favourite place to go for coffee doesn’t actually make good coffee. It’s a little-known café near my parents’ place in Switzerland, a land where the cappuccinos are too frothy, the flat whites too milky and the lattes non-existent.

I go there because it is perched on a clifftop overlooking Switzerland’s other mountain range – the Jura.

I say mountains, but the Jura are really a series of rolling, forested hills, a wrinkle on the planet before the white-capped Alps rise properly. They’re a place for secluded dog walks, quiet villages and farms with handmade signs for ‘Eier’ and ‘Kirsche’.

The view from the cafe.

In this otherwise unremarkable location there is a remarkable phenomenon unfolding, one that’s warranted an entire documentary by David Attenborough. On one side of a particular hill, different colonies of wood ants are doing what ants normally do - fighting each other. But on the other side, a single colony has foregone aggression and formed one of the largest cooperative animal societies on Earth.

In normal wood ant colonies, all ants are related to a single queen. When they stumble into ants from other colonies, they wage war in the grass, ripping each other apart and dissolving the bodies with acid.

The supercolony, however, is formed of over a billion unrelated ants from different colonies, all living in peace. While the ants on the other side of the hill are preoccupied with dismembering each other, the ‘unicolonial’ ants are collecting food for the next generation of queens and expanding their civilisation by up to 30 metres in all directions every year.

Peace, as it turns out, is quite a successful strategy. The Jura ant colony been described by biologists as ‘defying evolution’ and a ‘dilemma’ for social evolutionary theory.

The Jura ants have also defied geopolitical game theory. They have solved another dilemma that features in geopolitics courses the world over - the Prisoner’s Dilemma - which is used to demonstrate how two self-interested parties might produce an outcome that is sub-optimal for both.

On one side of the hill, the ants go to war. This decision has two possible outcomes. Either one colony wins and gains territory from another, or both sides come to a draw and retreat. The former outcome is best for one colony and worst for the other, but the latter is sub-optimal for both.

On the other side, two colonies decided to cooperate instead. The only possible outcome is that the energy they would’ve spent killing each other is instead spent on expansion.

At the end of the documentary, Attenborough asks whether the ants might serve as a lesson for humans. It could, but as the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows, it isn’t quite as simple as just agreeing to not kill each other.

The dilemma works by incentivising people to pursue the perfect at the expense of the good. If one party chooses to cooperate and the other doesn’t, the non-cooperator achieves its own optimal outcome; but the dilemma is that if both parties decide to not cooperate, they produce the worst overall outcome.

Let’s look at some examples. Take Washington and Beijing’s current approach to trade relations. Where once they traded relatively freely – if imperfectly - both have now decided not to cooperate and brought in tariffs and trade barriers to protect domestic industries.

The approach hasn’t exactly worked. Economists from the US Federal Reserve have reported a decrease in American manufacturing jobs, higher consumer prices and an overall negative effect on the global economy as a result of trade tariffs. China’s economy is also suffering, growing at half the rate of the last two decades with activity contracting in manufacturing, retail and property sales. Two self-interested actors have produced an outcome that is sub-optimal for both.

US-Iranian relations are another example. When both cooperated, the US curbed Iran’s nuclear program and Iran gained significant economic growth. Now both are non-cooperative and locked in a sub-optimal outcome involving assassinations, hijackings and missile strikes. Both sought the perfect at the expense of the good, and are now in the worst possible position.

So whilst the Prisoner’s Dilemma creates a strong temptation to not cooperate in pursuit of the ideal outcome, reality shows that the betrayed country always has options to retaliate. China responds to US tariffs with more tariffs; Iran responds to sanctions by hijacking tankers; the other colony of ants fights back.

Meanwhile, the ants on the other side decide to cooperate. Each colony may not have won as much as it might’ve, but at least they don’t waste time dismembering each other. The perfect didn't get in the way of the good. It’s evolutionary.