Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Communal Societies

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IN the paper on "Neuter Insects," recently published in "The Popular Science Monthly,"[1] the argument on certain phases of animal evolution there presented was not offered as a complete one. For a full exposition of the development of ant and bee intelligence, this subject needs to be considered from another point of view, and the present paper is intended as, in a partial sense, a sequel to the one above named.

It is usual to divide animals, in respect to their habits of association, into two classes, the solitary and the social. The solitary animals comprise all those which form sexual combinations only, and the class embraces all those species of the smaller mammals and birds which flock together solely from the fact that they are very numerous, and seek food in the same localities, not from any association for mutual aid.

The social animals form true communities. They are banded together by certain common interests, and possess a principle of association beyond that of the sexual. They present the germinal condition of a political society. These comprise most of the large herbivora, which aggregate for purposes of common defense, in some cases stationing sentries for protection while feeding, and in others following certain acknowledged leaders. Instances of any such association are rare among carnivora, the wolves being the most marked example.

Yet in the social animals, as a rule, the common interests are few, and the links of association weak. Individuality largely persists, there is no idea of common property, and nearly or quite the only interest in common is that of attack or defense. Separated from these by a broad interval are some three or four animal tribes whose socialism is of so advanced a type that it fairly deserves to be indicated by a special name. These tribes comprise the ants, bees, and termites, among insects, and the beavers among mammals. Their conditions of association are so different from those prevailing in most other cases, that it seems proper to consider them as a separate class. I propose for them the title of communal animals, as most distinctive of their life-habits.

Instead of possessing a few links of combination, these animals have most or all of the relations of life in common. In ant and bee communities, for instance, individualism has vanished. All property is held in common, all labor is performed for the community, there are a common home, common stores, common duties, community alike in assault and defense, and it is difficult or impossible to detect any ant or bee doing anything for itself alone, or performing any act which is not intended for the good of the community as a whole. Selfishness, so far as the home community is concerned, seems to have vanished, and labor and life are freely given for the good of this great whole, with no evident display of any thought of individual comfort or aggrandizement.

The communities of termites are communal in an equally complete sense, and seem to have utterly lost the selfish sentiment which is the ruling agency with solitary animals. With the beavers communalism has stopped somewhat short of this complete stage. They possess their dams and canals in common, and labor together in all the needs of out-door life. But they have not advanced to the stage of a common home, their habits rendering this impossible, or nearly so; and, though they seek food in common, each lodge lays up its own private stores. Yet their interests are so largely in common that they stand distinctly separate in this respect from the ordinary social vertebrates, and fairly belong to the communal class, in company with their insect analogues.

There is one further interesting and suggestive feature in these communal groups of animals, whose significance will be apparent when we come to consider the conditions of human communities. This is that they are family aggregates. The indefinite association of the social animals has become a strictly family association in the communal animals. This is not very clearly displayed in the beavers. Yet with them the inmates of each lodge probably belong to a single family, and form a group within the larger group. And the community as a whole may be descended from a single ancestor, like the members of the patriarchal family among men.

With the ants, bees, and termites this family association has gone much further, and each community constitutes a single family. Division of labor has proceeded to such an extent that the egg-bearing function is confined to one or a few members of the community, while all the sexual individuals beyond these perish. This principle has gone farthest with the bees, who permit but one female to develop for the use of each swarm, and who mercilessly destroy all the males, as soon as they become a burden on the community.

Thus it is evident that the conditions of communal life among animals can not fairly be claimed as merely advanced instances of socialism. They differ not only in regard to degree of community of interests, but also in displaying a new and distinct principle of association. The social group is a vague one, the communal a strictly defined one, which has gradually grown up in the midst of the older group and finally replaced it. Alike in ants, bees, and rodents, species exist in various stages of association, between the solitary and the communal, and could we trace all the steps of development we should undoubtedly perceive solitary animals gradually adopting social relations, and then family groups developing in the midst of the larger social groups, and acquiring special interests which render them finally hostile to other family groups. There can be but little question that the ants, termites, bees, and wasps, have passed through these various stages of association, and that the old social groups gradually broke up into minor family groups, which in turn have developed into extensive groups, combined on the principle of blood relationship.

This gradual evolution of the principle of association, beginning in the completely solitary or hermaphrodite tribes, and reaching its ultimate stage in the colonial or compound animals, of which we have a notable instance in the Siphonophora, or family compound of swimming polyps, in which the loss of individuality is complete, is a highly interesting phase of animal development, which we can not undertake to consider here as a whole. We may simply say that animals might be classified, from this point of view, as the truly solitary, the sexual, the social, the communal, and the colonial or compound.

The views above expressed lead directly to the consideration of primitive human societies, since these present a striking resemblance to those of the lower animals. The indications are, indeed, that the development of society everywhere follows one fixed course, and obeys one general law, and that human society has in no sense escaped this law, despite all the seeming irregularity of its development.

Man may properly be ranked with the ants, bees, and termites, as another instance of the communal animal, the beaver being his only vertebrate counterpart in this respect. Communalism probably did not exist with primitive man. He seems to have been originally a social animal, like the quadrumana, from whom it is assumed that he descended. Yet it is interesting to perceive that, at the opening of the historical period, the ancestors of all the present civilized races were in the communal stage of association, and under conditions which present a striking parallel to those of the lower tribes of communal animals.

Alike with the American Indians, the Mongolians and Semites of Asia, and the primitive Aryans, history opens-with strongly declared instances of the communal type of association. The original social groups, with few interests in common, had been replaced by well-defined family groups, with nearly all interests in common. The ancient association vanished as this new association developed, and the family became the basis of all social organization. We might, had we space, consider at some length the evolution of this new condition of human society. It doubtless had its basis in that slowly growing energy of the marriage sentiment, whose development has been traced by several recent writers. The primitive weak sense of union between husband, wife, and children gradually grew into a strong bond of association, whose strength was added to by the possession of a separate family property, which increased in value with the development of society. Thus in the heart of the old vague social group there grew up intimately associated family groups of increasing size and importance. The double link of property and blood-relationship rendered this association a strong one, and we seem to see the old social group gradually breaking up into its elements, with diversity of interests and a degree of hostility between the separate family groups. Each of these, in its turn, grew larger and larger, until it became a community in itself, held together by a strongly-felt sense of blood-relationship, and quite able to hold its own against other similar groups.

The most archaic of these communal groups is the patriarchal, that still found throughout nomadic Asia. It is distinctly based on family relations, recognizes a common ancestor, is governed by the living representative of this ancestor, and strongly holds to the fiction of blood relationship, even in adopted members of the tribe. Again, all property is held and all labor performed in common, and for the good of the community, while the sentiment of individualism is very greatly reduced. This is not now so strictly the case as it probably was of old, yet the principle of communalism is still strongly maintained.

Yet, as in the beavers, so in the patriarchal horde, there are minor groups within the group, tent-families like the lodge-family of the beavers, with more immediate family links than those of the larger group. Among the primitive Aryans this minor division had made great progress. The separation of the patriarchal community into minor family groups, with special interests and common property, had become strongly marked, and a reverse process of development, from communalism toward individualism, had fairly set in. The Aryan village community had still many interests in common, and held the fiction of a common ancestor. Yet it had taken a step in advance of the stage reached by the communal animals, toward the higher and special development of modern human society.

Between the patriarchal and the Aryan systems of association stands that of the Indian clan, which possessed features of both. The general family group was broken up into smaller family groups, as well defined as the Aryan, yet the division of property had not advanced so far. And not only property was held to a considerable extent in common, but common habitation existed among many tribes, of which we have the most marked and striking instance in the great common habitations of the Pueblo Indians of to-day.

In the later stages of human development there has been a strongly declared progress toward individualism, at least in property and political relations. The family association has vanished, and has been replaced by the territorial, which is the link of connection in all modern civilized societies, and the latest outgrowth of the principle of animal association. Yet industrially the communal principle holds good, though it has assumed a new and wider phase than that of old. Though the idea of community in property has lost its force, the sentiment that the labor of each is for the good of all is stronger than ever. It is not expressly formulated, but it exists everywhere in practice. Men work less and less for their individual interests, and more and more for the good of the community. The woodsman who fells a tree in a Western forest has no thought of using its wood for himself, lie neither knows nor cares what may become of it. But he knows that in one region a farmer is raising grain, and in another an artisan is weaving cloth, and that some of these will come to him in exchange for his labor. And between woodsman, farmer, and artisan, are fifty or five hundred other individuals, each of whom takes some part in this exchange of products. Neither of these parties works directly for himself, yet each works for the good of all in a far higher and more developed sense than in the analogous case of the communal insects.

It is necessary now to return to another phase of the subject here considered, that relating to the intellectual development of animals. It has often been a source of wonder that the ants and bees have advanced so far in intellectual achievement beyond all other members of the insect class, and that many of their habits and institutions so closely simulate those of human society. This latter, indeed, is but another evidence of the law above considered, that all evolution, whether physical or mental, is controlled by one general principle, and must follow one naturally determined course. But the superior intellectuality of these low forms of life is in itself a phenomenon that calls for some special attention.

A glance at the situation at once reveals that this superiority of intellectual progress must in some way be connected with the communal stage of association, since it is manifested only by the communal animals, the ants, bees, termites, and beavers, and is not shown in any of the solitary species of these zoölogical groups. Evidence pointing in the same direction may be found in the habits of the social animals, which seem to have reasoned out the expedient of stationing sentries to guard them against danger while feeding. And it is interesting in this connection to perceive that the elephants, the most advanced of the herbivora in social combination, likewise display the greatest intellectual advancement.

We might deduce from these facts either the conclusion that intellectual development is favored by close association and communalism, or the reverse conclusion that an original superior intellectuality was the inciting cause of communal association. A consideration of all the facts of the case seems to prove that the former conclusion is the correct one. For observation indicates that individually the communal insects are not superior in intellect to the solitary species. Take the ant beyond the range of his hereditary instincts, and he seems a duller creature than the spider. The same conclusion applies to the beaver, which is said to be much duller, so far as individual powers of intellect arc concerned, than many other vertebrates. In fact, in Romanes's work on "Animal Intelligence," the highest powers of intellect are ascribed to the carnivora, which as a general rule are solitary animals. And this is a natural result of the fact that they are obliged to depend upon their own powers in all the exigencies of life, and can not trust to others to relieve them from some of the duties of existence.

Much has been said about the highly remarkable powers of the minute mass of nerve-substance in an ant's head. Yet the brain of every animal has undoubtedly a double duty to perform. It is partly devoted to the control of the muscular organization, partly to psychical activity. And to this we must ascribe the increase in size of brain that generally attends increase in size of body among animals. Though the brain of a large animal may be much larger than that of a small one, this may be mainly due to the increase of its motor duties, and there may be no increase in its psychical portion. In fact, in certain large extinct animals, with greatly developed posterior structure, a sort of second brain seems to have existed at the rear extremity of the spinal column, as if the motor portion of the brain had moved backward to the region where it was most needed. Yet it is very probable that in any of the higher vertebrates the portion of the brain devoted to psychical functions is considerably greater in volume than the whole brain of the ant. And, if the degree of intelligence be in any sense proportional to the size of its organ, these higher vertebrates should be superior in intellect to the ant.

Such is actually the case. The excursions of the ant-mind beyond the limit of its instincts seem to be exceedingly slight. Those of the mammalian mind are sometimes extensive. If we compare the instances of individual intellect displayed by a cat and an ant, for instance, we can not avoid the conclusion that the cat is very greatly superior in powers of reasoning. Yet no cat tribes keep cows, marshal armies, store provisions, enslave captives, or perform any of the wonderful series of intellectual acts which are common in ant communities, and which form part of the powers of every ant-brain. How shall we account for this difference in results? It seems evident that it is in some way due to difference in modes of association. The powers of the ant are instinctive—that is, they have been passed down by hereditary transmission through numerous generations. They are the outcome of not one brain, but of innumerable brains. Though the brain of one ant be minute, yet the brains of a million ants would form a considerable mass, and every act of ant intellect is probably the product of several millions of ant-brains, each of which may have added some minute increment to the final result.

There are, in fact, two distinct methods by which the intellectual powers of ancestors may be transmitted to descendants. One of these is the hereditary, the other the experimental. Among solitary animals the special intellectual achievements of each animal are in great measure lost. They are unseen by others, and thee experience of each dies with it. For, as we well know, it is only the general, not the special powers of the mind that are transmitted by heredity. No child is born with the special knowledge of its parents, though it may possess all the intellectual tendencies and powers of its parents. Only when some action is repeated generation after generation does it produce so strong an impress upon the intellect as to be hereditarily transmitted. In this case we have the inheritance of an instinct, or strong special mental tendency.

It is evident that among social animals acts of special shrewdness performed by any individual are likely to be seen and may be imitated by others. In such cases an educational is added to the hereditary method of intellectual transmission. Any such acts, if of special value to the community, may be very frequently repeated, and if the community be long kept together it may make important steps of progress in this method along. When, again, communities pass from the social to the communal phase of association the influence above mentioned must act with much greater vigor. For the members of communal are much more closely associated than those of social groups. They work more together, and are brought into more intimate association in all the details of life. It is claimed by some writers that the young actually go to school to the old, and are specially taught the duties of the hive and the ant-hill.[2] In addition to this there is much reason to believe that the communities of communal animals are often continuous for a very long period of time. The ant city does not die out with one generation, but may continue in existence through an indefinite number of generations. The bee family sends out its annual swarms, but the young before this migration are old enough to have been taught all the duties of bee-life. Thus the special habits of a single original hive may be transmitted, in the educational method, to an indefinite number of much later hives. Parallel conditions are known to exist among the beavers. The condition is similar to that of an overcrowded human community, whose younger members migrate in search of a new home, but not until they have learned all the arts of the parental community.

Communalism, therefore, has its special value as an aid to the transmission of knowledge and useful habits through teaching and observation. It also induces the incessant reiteration of acts that have proved beneficial to the community, until the tendency to perform these acts becomes so strong that it is hereditarily transmitted. In other words, it tends to produce instincts. In fact, in the case of animals of low intellectual vigor, like the ants and bees, it seems probable that new habits, of special value to a community, grow up only by minute increments, and through long periods of time. Each when gained becomes repeated through innumerable generations, and finally becomes an instinct, capable of hereditary transmission. In this way animals of very slight intellectual vigor, by the educational transmission of all beneficial individual acts, may have gradually gained the diversified mental conditions of these two remarkable types.

In ant and bee communities, as at present constituted, the hereditary transmission of new arts seems at first sight impossible. Intellectual acts performed by the workers must remain unknown to the solitary female, who can only transmit the ancient instincts. It would seem as if the development of communalism had reached a point at which intellectual progress must stop. The general habits of ants and bees were probably gained during their slow evolution of communalism from socialism, and ere the sexual relations had attained their present extreme restriction. With but one female, who takes no part in the duties of home or field, and remains ignorant of any shrewd act that may be performed by a worker, it seems impossible that the existing instincts should receive any addition.

Yet this is not quite impossible, even in the present conditions of ant and bee life. Experiential development and transmission of new habits may continue indefinitely, since single communities may continue in existence, or may yield direct colonies, for indefinite periods of years. And the occasional birth of males from workers affords a possible means by which these habits may be hereditarily transmitted, since it is quite conceivable that these male children of workers may become the parents of new communities. In bee communities the occasional transformation of a worker into a queen affords a direct means for the transmission of worker characteristics. The case is closely parallel to that of the transmission of knowledge in human communities, though in the latter hereditary transmission is of limited scope, and education is the great agent in the communication of knowledge.

Special attention has here been given to this question, as it is one that has excited much comment and debate, and the thoughts here advanced may not be without their interest and value. I would but repeat what is above said, that the remarkable institutions of ant and bee communities do not indicate any intellectual superiority to solitary animals in the members of these communities, but simply a much superior method for the transmission of intellectual results. And to this may be added the final conclusion that while ant and bee communalism has now reached a stage that must tend in great measure to check the hereditary transmission of new habits, yet it is possible that a slow improvement in the habits of these communities may still continue, both by education or observation and by heredity.

The mental relations of animal communities, as thus reviewed, apply closely to the question of the intellectual development of man. Among the quadrumana socialism is often greatly developed, educational transmission is common, and much intellectual shrewdness is manifested. But, between the intellectuality of these communities and those of the ants and bees, there is a marked difference. We speak of the monkey as marked by incessant curiosity. That is to say, he makes constant mental excursions beyond the range of his hereditary habits. He constantly "wants to know." His intellectual acumen is far superior to that of the low animal tribes, which have advanced so far beyond him in habits. In man the same "want to know" has ever been active, and to it are due his rapid gaining of new experiences and increase in knowledge. Yet, so far as social organization is concerned, he was very long in reaching the level attained by the communal animals. He probably continued for ages in the social state, though it is impossible to say how early the patriarchal state may have been reached. Three or four thousand years ago we find the ancestors of the present civilized nations everywhere organized under conditions closely analogous to those of ant and bee communities, though in their mental acumen and variety of habits and knowledge they were almost infinitely superior.

With one further consideration we may close. It is of interest to perceive that in human communities the transmission of intellectual habits is mainly and almost entirely a consequence of education, either direct or indirect. Instinct is almost non-existent, so far as the industrial and intellectual habits of life are concerned. We might destroy an ant city, with the exception of a single male and female, yet these would give rise to a new city, with no perceptible difference in powers from the old. Yet were we to destroy a civilized human community, with the exception of a few infants, these, could they give rise to descendants, in isolated localities, would yield a community nearly destitute of knowledge and of the power of dealing with Nature. They would have to begin anew, where their ancestors began ages before. Yet they would possess mental powers and tendencies that would enable them to rapidly gain new experience and habits, and would undoubtedly develop into a new civilization with exceedingly greater rapidity than was shown in the development of primeval man.

It is the rapidity of progress in human habits and knowledge that prevents any of these habits becoming instinctive. Old conditions are rapidly thrown aside and new ones gained, and no method of action is pursued long enough for it to grow into the force of an instinct. The tendency of human progress is to check instinct, and to more and more constantly employ reason, while with the lower animals the tendency is to the development of instincts. And we may close by naming the ants and bees as instances of the extreme unfoldment of the instinctive powers, man as an instance of the greatest checking of instinct and development of the reasoning faculties.


  1. December, 1885.
  2. Romanes says that the "house-bees" are the younger bees left at home, for domestic duties, with only a small proportion of older ones, left probably to direct the young. The young ant "is led about the nest, and trained to a knowledge of domestic duties, especially in the case of larva?. Later on the young ants are taught to distinguish between friends and foes. When an ant-nest is attacked by foreign ants the young ants never join in the fight, but confine themselves to removing the pupæ." In a nest made by Forel of young ants and pupæ of different species, no hostility arose. They dwelt together as a happy family. They had not been educated into hostility to foreigners. Lubbock says, "It is remarkable how much individual ants appear to differ from one another in character." There is thus a natural basis for the development of new habits.