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Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants, review: sage advice from the ant world on the advantages of working together
JAY GORY, MANAGING EDITOR, science
Ants are not among the planet’s most appealing creatures. But add the name Attenborough to the title of any film about the natural world and it becomes a much more enticing prospect. Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants (BBC Two) was a case in point  and must have drawn in many viewers who otherwise would have shuddered at the thought of spending an hour in the company of these industrious but uncharismatic insects. The reward was a surprisingly fascinating film, not so much a wildlife documentary as a philosophical discourse on the evolutionary advantages of making love rather than war. And, more controversially, on the socio-economic benefits of breaking down barriers and borders, rather than seeking to raise or maintain them. The setting was high in the Jura mountains, on the border between Switzerland and France, where Attenborough had located the perfect test case.  Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants Credit: BBC On the one hand, there was a “sleeping giant”, a vast, underground super-colony of wood ants whose ability to defy their more aggressive instincts and cooperate went against many of the norms of ant nature. As a result, a vast underground “society” had developed in which upwards of half a billion ants were linked across a thousand individual nests in a thrumming ecstasy of food-sharing, farming, cross-breeding and general cooperation that left them largely free to focus on the most important thing: the next generation. On the other side of the mountain, though, where each ant colony was a strictly separate fiefdom, things were not so rosy. Any ant that strayed into another camp’s territory was mobbed and murdered. Breeding was controlled by a single queen in each nest, maintaining the purity of the genetic line but reducing opportunity and diversity. Ant armies were constantly at war over territory and invasions. The air was full of formic acid, their chemical weapon of choice. Attenborough, understandably, was of the opinion that the super-colony wasn’t only a more peaceful and productive place, but a preferable one. And that the capacity for cooperation and diversity represented a big step in evolutionary progress – leaving us with the prescient message that we may have much to learn from the empire of the ants. read more
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