Large numbers and long durations are hard

Small volcano cones of soil particles have started to appear on the rough ground where the dog and I walk most days. The ants are waking up. What with the pink snow of blossom under the cherry trees, spring is definitely here. The ants' spoil heaps seem entirely appropriate at the moment, the right size for their builders. Later in the summer there will be highways, cleared of any and all debris, snaking for five or ten metres through the herbage. Some of them will be busy with ants going back and forth harvesting seeds, others completely bare. Then they'll switch around as new harvests become available.

And in all this, the ants are working side by side, but not together. They don't actually cooperate. Each just does its own thing, but usually that aggregates to something that looks like they're working together. I've sat and watched two ants each tugging valiantly on a seed but in opposite directions. A third ant can make the difference if she joins in on one side or the other. But if she grabs the middle of the seed and tugs, they will still be going nowhere. Eventually, forces of numbers moves the seed in one direction alone, and statistically the seed heads for the storehouse.

I find it hard to consider that the mighty works of these teeny ants do not have a guiding spirit directing them (though I know that they do not) and it is easy to see why Eugene Marias came to the opposite conclusion. It is just so difficult to think about how many individual ants make up a colony. The same applies to geological time; it is just too difficult to imagine how long it is, and how many opportunities it offers for mutation and selection to act. And so, more or less, with the works of mankind. I can marvel at the pyramids, or the burial chambers of Saxon England, or the immense irrigation systems of Chinese rice farming before the age of machinery, or the ant workers of Bangladesh reducing an entire oil tanker to pieces that a person can carry. But I can barely comprehend the numbers involved, and that makes it hard to comprehend the real scale of the work.

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