The Ant and the Spider, Part 2
Ted is a pretty particular man. He has made it his business to know his neighbors on campus. Walking home one evening, I saw him leaning over a red, upturned canoe, taking pictures of the many scratches and scuffs. Closer investigation revealed two tiny moving dots on the boat; Ted snapped a few more shots before pointing out that before us scurried Exhibit Ant A and Exhibit “Ant” B… the latter possessing eight legs. It was a brilliant disguise; immediately I imagined this arachnid scuttling through the ant colony tunnels, secret agent style. The good guys infiltrating the lair of evil, disguised in the suits of the villainous guards stunned just moments before, is ubiquitous in the genre of adventure and suspense.
But here was a spider in an ant colony with no clearly defined lines of good or evil. Could ants be considered the more peaceful species? Hardly. And could a spider be considered heroic by starving itself to death in the name of pacifism?
My husband is currently taking an Anatomy and Physiology class. The other day, he remarked, “Violence happens constantly at the most basic cellular level.” Except that when I turned toward him, Charles Darwin was sitting next to me in 1830-era garb, saying in a crisp British accent, “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields.” It was terrifying.
But truly, this is a conundrum we humans have struggled with for many centuries. Is survival inherently violent? Or is violence characterized by actions that only damage one’s own species? Can ethical questions of good and evil seek guidance from ecological observations?
We observe the world around us, hoping to find clues to the nature of this very strange universe, to unlock the mystery of our own way of being—are we basically good? Inherently flawed? Simply animals? Annie Dillard writes, “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence”; this state of awareness has driven many a man and woman into existential crisis.
Survival depends on death, from human cells to the largest mammals; it’s a beautiful, brutal world out there.
Dean of Academics