The Great Ant Genocide

The ants were everywhere. They were scurrying all over the laundry floor. Most were headed to and from the cat’s food bowl, implicating it as the cause of this mild infestation. My girlfriend yelled out – swearing in her native Portuguese – then ran off to the laundry to fetch some foul poisonous white powder, which she scattered over the ants with careless abandon. Genocide of mass proportions!

“Murderer” I castigated in one last desperate attempt to save those poor ants.

“We have to get rid of them.” She replied. “They are everywhere.”

And she was right – they were everywhere. But it didn’t mean we had to poison them, nor even kill them. Surely they would leave once the cat food had been cleaned up and taken to the ant’s nest for dissemination amongst the colony. I imagine that the ants had better things to do than move into our humble abode. For one, they couldn’t afford the rent – not in the city.

The question is why kill ants at all? Why kill any insects or creatures of this world? Let them live their lives in peace. They may come into your home for a visit and some may even stay too long, like an unwanted friend living on the couch, but he’s still a friend so you let him stay whilst he tries to find a job.

Even cockroaches have a right to life. What about mosquitoes? No, that’s probably taking things too far. They deserve to die right? It’s survival instinct. Kill or wake up with itchy bites on your ankle; kill or don’t sleep a wink as they buzz around your head; kill or be killed in the fight for survival. After all, mosquitoes are the most deadly animal in the world if one considers the magnitude of deaths throughout the developing world due to malaria and Dengue fever. A few great white sharks on the loose along the local surf spots has everyone bleating with fear, but even the mighty great white has nothing on the deadly mosquito… Sometimes the tiny flying insect is mightier than the shark. Jaws – huh!! It should have been ‘The Revenge of the Giant Mosquito’ that had children in the 80s petrified.

The other insects of this planet – the harmless ones – flies, cockroaches, ants, bugs, beetles, butterflies, crickets and moths, deserve our empathy and to live out their lives in peace. Especially the ants, for they are an example to us all – a bastion of communal living. If humans could be more like ants – working together for the collective as Marx had envisaged or the hippies in San Francisco had dreamed before Charlie Manson turned up – surely the world would be a better state; less death, less destruction and a sustainable earth for future generations to tarry in for centuries to come. Instead we humans have gone for a different system, the antithesis of the ant – use up everything on the planet, consume its food and resources, kill each other, and greedily take whatever one can during their short stay on the earth.

My girlfriend just wiped out a huge number of these beautiful creatures.  Maybe, in an effort to hide the harmony of their collective lifestyles, so we cannot see our own failures.

The ants are being destroyed and no one seems to care. My cat walks in and my girlfriend gives it a big loving cuddle. I don’t see her poisoning the cat. She’d be terribly upset if the cat got it like the ants, but why?

Why do some animals deserve life more than others? Why is it a shame to kill a panda but not a rabbit, an elephant but not a sheep, a swan but not a goose, a turtle but not a fish?  Should not all “Gods” creatures be treated equally?

I’ve racked my brains and there appears no rational explanation. There is no clear line delineating the worthy creatures from the unworthy. Nor do these pontificating thoughts help the ants facing genocide in my house today. They are like the last citizens to be hung in a country coming to the end of state sanctioned execution, where outrage at their deaths finally boils over and the death penalty is ended forever… too little too late for those last souls, but at least the ants that find their way into my house in the future might have a better chance than those lying slain on the floor.

Why are some animals treated better than others? Why do humans protest the slaughter of whales but don’t care about fish?  I have no idea, but there are some traits that seem to be considered better in the classism of species. Intelligence helps some animals – such as dolphins and elephants but others like the rat and pig are smart but considered dirty or diseased. The pig is probably too tasty for its own good – Its intelligence forgotten in the taste of a pork spare rib. Beauty can protect mammals like the panda or parrots like the toucan, but beauty is subjective and all animals are beautiful is some way.

The rareness of animal is also relevant. The less of something there is the more desirous it becomes. There are heaps of rabbits so to lose a few doesn’t seem to concern us, nor ants or any other creature in excess. The problem with this argument is that there are about seven billion homo-sapiens.

The tiger is beautiful and rare but this is outweighed by the belief in parts of Asia that the tiger can cure disease and stave off death. The rhinoceros’s horn is rare and a prized possession for some, which means it’s always on the brink of extinction and that’s not likely to change despite last ditch efforts to save it. I fear it may be too little too late for the tiger and the rhino, but humans often band together to try to save an animal when it is facing extinction. This might be because we care about the animal or it may just be guilt arising from the knowledge that it was humanity that took the species to the point of extinction in the first place.

Humans are also more likely to protect an animal if it is more like a human, such as our closest cousins the apes, and dogs which live with us and share similar emotions to us. I think people just have natural propensity to care about things that are closer to them, be it by look, location or thought. Of course the dog is eaten in parts of Asia, but that may have been born out of necessity. Anyone appalled by this probably should consider how the Hindu community feels about people eating their sacred cow.

It seems that one of the big factors in determining the worth of animal’s life is food – both taste and necessity. Surely everyone would eat a dog or a turtle or an elephant if it meant surviving – even another human? You’ll have to ask Richard Parker or those folks whose plane crashed in the Andes.

We kill each other in droves, over religion and politics and land, over nation states and resources. So why not kill the animals too? And that includes those humble ants. Living their lives as one entity – a thousand ants, all limbs of the one creature – working in perfect harmony for the good of the colony – A beautiful synergy of energy; communal living at its purest. It makes one think that the ant is fairly smart, and there is a beauty in the way they live their lives.

All the ants are dead now – wiped out by my girlfriend’s ant killer that she bought at the local hardware store to deal with such infestation. Their bodies are brushed up carelessly from the ground and chucked into the garden where they will make good fertiliser for the basil.

They get their revenge though….

A few months later, on a bushwalk near Brooklyn my girlfriend is bitten by half a dozen fire ants whilst I am untouched. We are both wearing flip-flops so my only conclusion is that my long legs mean I have taken fewer steps and therefore there is less chance of being bitten. Then it struck me… This is the ant’s revenge.

At one point my girlfriend is walking just behind me. I go over a little crest and hear her scream, and see her standing near a nest with about five fire ants throwing themselves at her feet – without care for their safety, biting hard and causing pain.

It is an incredible sight to see these little ants, each no more than two millimetre high, ferociously attacking a fully grown human more than 600 times higher. This would be analogous to a one kilometre high giant ant walking over your house and instead of running away in fear you run straight at the creature and launch yourself at its feet, biting and scratching and kicking. Incredible! That is courage – and I have to throw my support behind the ants as they fly at her and bite down hard on her feet. How could you not? This is David and Goliath stuff, but more incredible – it’s like me attacking a mountain with a pitchfork – insanity maybe – but brilliant too. If only the Lion had met an ant in the Land of Oz instead of Dorothy.

I’m glad the ants got their revenge. It may not be full reparations for what they went through during the infamous Laundry Floor Massacre, but it’s a start and maybe next time they appear in my house, removing some spilt food, they will be left alone to carry out their business.


Watermelon Seeds, Blue Eyed Babies and the Brave New World of Genetic Modification

I bite into a chunk of watermelon. It is refreshing in a way that only watermelons are. There are no seeds of course – there have been no seeds for years.

When I was younger, watermelons always had cumbersome black seeds scattered throughout – seeds that had to be removed during the eating experience. They were large and slippery, and awful to taste if accidentally bitten during the mastication process. It was very frustrating, for a watermelon should be eaten quickly and without care.

Watermelon seeds have gone the way of the humble toll collector and the tape recorder; belonging to a different time. Of course technological advancement in man-made appliances is easier to fathom than vast changes in fruit. Fruit is natural and from the earth; grown from a seed and not in a laboratory. Any significant adaptations are always concerning.

So what happened to these seeds? Where have they gone?

It appears that the growing process has been modified genetically or otherwise… Bigger watermelons, with more flavour and more of the fleshy pink fruit, but smaller and fewer seeds, and over generations the seeds have disappeared completely (or become so small one can hardly notice them).

It’s easy to see why this was undertaken. The seeds were not adding any value to the watermelon at all. In fact it was quite the opposite. It was an unnecessary distractions taking away from the general good taste of that fine fruit.

So they got rid of them completely, or at least reduced them significantly. Used the watermelons with less seeds to breed more watermelons with even less seeds, or just genetically modify the seed gene right out of there. The same practices are used in almost all farming from breeding fatter pigs to adapting grains to tolerate various pesticides and engineering fruits to look and taste a certain way – Greener apples, more orange oranges, and more beautiful food for all.

Imagine what the future may hold for fruit and vegetables – bananas with no bend in them, onions that don’t make you cry, curry favoured broccoli, potatoes that tastes like pizza –it all sounds very appealing, and imagine the benefit when young children around the world eat their greens without complaint – stuffing their eager faces with cheesy sprouts, chocolate cauliflower and other tasty but nutritious vegies. But is a potato that tastes like pizza really a potato? Or is it some mad scientists dream? And where does one draw the line between small changes and complete genetic overhaul? Between speeding up the evolutionary process and completely annihilating it? When are we encroaching on the realms of God? And is this the path we want to take?

Removing watermelon seeds has made eating a watermelon a more pleasant experience. Shall that same test be used with genetic change in the human reproductive experience? Was the watermelon just a test and people are next?

I read recently that people can now determine the eye colour of their children or other such physical traits. Is this the beginning of the super children – created by parents in the image of anyone they choose – to look and sing like a favourie pop idol?  A gene for eye colour inserted here, a splash of auburn hair there, a touch of empathy (but not too much of course), plenty of drive and determination and a dose of charm to get them through the day.  A perfect little baby created just the way mum and dad wish them to be… but is that pushing the role of parents too much? Surely the child should have a choice in this. It’s not like a bad name that can be changed later in life if the parents get too whacky. Admittedly 18 years with a name like La-a (pronounced La-dash-a) may seem like eternity to a child stuck with it. But it’s not forever and there are ways around it. You can call yourself ‘La’ for one. Genetic modification permanently alters the genetic code with no way back.

And where does it end? If a parent wants to make their child incredibly small or big, or with the added advantage of having an extra arms, or to resemble a wolf to give the youngster a better chance of making it in Hollywood, at least in playing the oft required role of movie werewolf.

It is not hard to see the merits to using genetic modification to rid the world of nasty diseases, or crippling disabilities. But even then there are some tough ethical questions such as what diseases or disabilities should be removed, and what are we saying about those in our society with a disability that we then try to eradicate? Some of humanities greatest people have been great precisely because they are different. They thought outside the box. Saw the wold in a different way and created things humanity never dreamt of. We are not in Nazi Germany. Difference and even disability should be celebrated not destroyed with the intention of creating some perfect race.

What about superficial changes, and personalities? Is it ethical to manipulate personality? Should we make everyone beautiful, remove the sociopath gene or just increase the serotonin levels in every young brain so that general contentment is raised – Brave New World Style. Is this the end of evolution as we know it? Replaced by a modern form of genetic manipulation where babies are designed in laboratories and then inserted into the womb.

Looking at this future and the last of my juicy watermelon I can’t help but wonder if maybe the watermelon seeds weren’t that bad after all. There was an appreciation for the taste of the fruit that was earned through the hard work of actually eating it – just as a worker that has worked hard all year may really appreciate the Christmas holidays in a way others cannot. Sometimes the hard things in life make it all worthwhile. Maybe a watermelon without a seed is too good – too easy to enjoy and not what a watermelon should be, just as a holiday from a holiday is not really a holiday at all.

And maybe the different talents, looks and personalities amongst humanity are so special because they are random and rare, and if everyone looked or thought a certain way or was equally good at this or that, then there would be a mediocrity to it all that destroyed what it really meant to be human.