The Wisdom of the Ants

A French Jewish author says rampant capitalism has made men forget their ability to function as a group

Two books by French Jewish author Bernard Werber have been published in Hebrew translation, receiving almost no notice whatever here. Keter brought them out a few years ago, as part of a science fiction series, and indeed, Werber's work borders on science fiction. If you read the two books, however - "The Ants" and the sequel, "Day of the Ants" - you will not easily forget them, or the wealth of content the author crams into them: from science, philosophy, history, and literature, and a lot of food for thought.

At the French pavilion at the Jerusalem International Book Fair about two weeks ago, Werber was surprised to encounter some of the readers of his Hebrew editions. He wasn't sure any such people existed.

Werber, 42, has written nine books so far, a few of which have been widely translated. He was born to a Jewish family; his mother is a former Israeli and his father a French Jew from Toulouse. Werber lives in Paris. "Judaism is in all my books," he says, and mentions his great interest in Kabbala. The idea for "The Ants," he says, began with the tale of King Solomon following ants around, trying to understand their wisdom and their secrets.

"The Ants" describes two parallel civilizations - that of human beings, and that of ants - and the war between them. In "Day of the Ants," he continues to describe the war of the ants and their biggest enemies, human fingers and toes, which threaten to crush them. He also describes a group of people locked in the basement who gradually mutate - human bodies, ant souls - and tells of a genius who found a way to talk to ants using a reconstructed Rosetta stone.

Considering the array of messages in the book, at least one conclusion emerges clearly: Human beings have a lot to learn from the ants. Ants have a very high-functioning visualization ability, and hence a lot of survival power - much greater than that of humans.

Why did Weber choose ants as the heroes of his books? "Ants can live together in solidarity and forget themselves in the community," he says. "In a normative capitalist society, everyone is an egoist. In the ants' civilization, you are part of the group; you don't live for yourself alone. In one of my books, I wrote about the idea of kibbutz as a community where people work and live together. When I was 14, I lived and worked at Kibbutz Ramat David and was very happy. The kibbutz seems to me like a utopian group life, and it's still possible in my view. The problem is that nowadays there is too much aggression and egotism. We of the modern age are a bridge between the old human and the new one. We still have the mentality of the old human, a slave mentality, like the Children of Israel in Egypt; too controlled, full of fear."

The third book of Werber's trilogy, "Empire of the Ants," describes an attempt at revolution by a group of people who want to create a collective community, to work and live together, "but their tools are computers."

Does ant life demand that one relinquish the individualism that the West has so cultivated?

"Not totally," says Werber. "When an ant stands alone on a human being's fingertip, it is thinking and acting autonomously, not as part of a group; but it can also function as a group being. For us human beings, there is no choice. We are always alone, we have learned to be alone within ourselves and it's hard for us to be part of a group."

The formula for an ant revolution, says Werber, is one and one equals three, i.e., you work as a group and get more. Unlike with human society, he says, in ant society only a few work; all the others rest. "There are several ranks of ants," he says. "Ants in the first group, the biggest group, do nothing; they just live and think about life. Ants in the second group do all kinds of things, but not efficiently, and the third and smallest group does all the work for everyone. With people, it's the opposite - like robots, most of them are working all the time."

In his next book, "The Tree of Possibilities" (which will be published in Hebrew translation by Kinneret), Werber considers the future. "Science fiction is my way of pushing the imagination onward," he says. "It's a way to understand how the world will look in the future."