Saturday, June 16, 2007

Fables of Fallacies

Elaine, my botanist friend, sends me a NYT article by M. P. Dunleavey (author of “Money Can Buy Happiness”, Broadway Books, 2007) and a query:

Do you or don't you agree with this one? Note that there are two conclusions, those of the study (be a grasshopper) and what to do if you're a grasshopper through and through. hmm.
The article begins:
REMEMBER the fable about the ant and the grasshopper? The ant works hard all summer, socking away provisions for the winter; the grasshopper frolics away each day. The ant warns the grasshopper that he’s being hedonistic and short-sighted. The grasshopper ignores the ant, and continues on his merry way — only to perish when winter sets in.
It then describes two studies. The first compared 200 adults who had chosen to live a life of "voluntary simplicity" to 200 adults who were matched in most particulars except this inclination to an ascetic life. Their conclusion was that the non-consumers were "much happier and more satisfied with their lives." hence it is better to forsake lucre and embrace a life of material denial.

The article does not mention the definitions of these terms, nor how they were determined.

Christopher K. Hsee, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business...points out that when people use their purchases as a semaphore of status, there is “no natural stopping point;” there will always be a bigger house, a fancier car, a more expensive watch to go after.

Pondering the study, the observation, and "her own grasshopper nature" Dunleavey opines that: "Working hard and being practical are ideal skills to have in life, but if those aren’t your bag, investing in a happier way of life may offer the same financial dividend."

This fable has long intrigued me. I am a thorough going grasshopper (non- kung-fu type) who has never understood the appeal -- or mastered the knack -- of the tidy ant's life.

Since I have been meaning to write about this for some time -- this is Elaine's answer.

First let us consider the metaphors implied by this tale.

Search Google for "ant + social organization" and the first listing is for an article on Info Please. This informs us:

Colonies range in size from a few dozen to half a million or more individuals. Typically they include three castes: winged, fertile females, or queens; wingless, infertile females, or workers; and winged males. Those ordinarily seen are workers. In some colonies ants of the worker type may become soldiers or members of other specialized castes.
To my mind appears the Old Kingdom of Egypt with its few Pharaohs, priests and nobles at the top of a huge mass of peasants and slaves. The latter were virtually identical in the tenor of their lives.The article further describes:
Whenever a generation of queens and males matures it leaves on a mating flight; shortly afterward the males die, and each fecundated queen returns to earth to establish a new colony. The queen then bites off or scrapes off her wings, excavates a chamber, and proceeds to lay eggs for the rest of her life (up to 15 years), fertilizing most of them with stored sperm.
This solidifies the image of a power struggle in the executive suite of a major corporation. The board members and the senior executives dance intricate patterns of intrigue until the denouement. The contenders not selected go elsewhere -- dead to the company -- while the new CEO enters the corner office to live a life beyond workaholicism, expending his substance gained in all those adumbrative years in waiting among the lower ranks until he is spent.

A Google search on "grasshopper + social organization" yields no articles about the social organization of grasshoppers on the first page. Most hits refer to the Grasshopper Pueblo. The one University of Zürich reference tantalizes, but disappoints with its discussion of bats. Apparently the social organization of grasshoppers is of little interest to the world. Perhaps this is because the grasshopper is as solitary, feckless, anarchistic and irresponsible as painted.

But I can't accept this as the end of the inquiry. Both metaphors are too bleak -- too monochromatic -- to match the real, full light spectrum world.

To the extent I can claim any science training at all it had to do with ecology which (along with film making, peace, and folk music) achieved a brief notoriety as my generation passed through college before the discipline was co-opted into its present political form as environmentalism (the "-ism" is always a tipoff that science was left behind). The difference? Ecology is the study of natural systems. Environmentalism is a movement to achieve a political judgment of the desirable components of an eco-system. e.g.: We want more butterflies and fewer house flies.

So, let us consider the ecology of ant and grasshopper. By dint of their adaptation to a draconian master/slave society, ants fill a certain niche which allows them to store food for the winter. They have more than enough food for their basic needs, and they live longer than a year (7 to 15 years), so that storing of some of the surplus is required. They are hard working. They are industrious. And for all any of us knows their life may contain wonders, joys and sorrows we cannot apprehend.

Grasshoppers are geared to a much shorter life span, one that accords with the food supply offered by the niche they occupy. Their strategy to survive winter is for their eggs to go dormant in the cold ground until Spring's sun warms the soil enough to grow the green plants that are the grasshopper's diet.

Both creature's are 'hard working'. Both are accorded good times and bad.

Now turn to the 'ecology', if you will, of the metaphors.

The 'ant' works hard in a large organization which commands sufficient resources to care for each of its members most of the time. Disasters do happen.

The 'grasshopper' works hard on his own account and commands sufficient resources to care for himself most of the time. Disasters do happen.

Factory workers, office workers, miners moiling underground, lumbermen in the forests, university professors, soldiers and sailors are all busy being 'ant'-like members of highly organized outfits that seek to transmute effort into sustenance.

Artists, writers, farmers, actors, fishermen, inventors, and such like are all busy being 'grasshopper'-like solitary producers of their own sustenance.

But Nature is never less than prodigal even in times of dearth. So there is a surplus left over. For the ant it may be more food than the colony can use. For the grasshopper it may be the joyful noise of its chirrups and the liveliness of its hops as it tries to attract a mate. Be it tangible or impalpable, there is more then needed most of the time.

I think now we arrive at the nubbin that annoys about this fable. It is Thomas' fallacy: not to believe what cannot be touched.

All honor to those who struggle in stressful circumstances to bring home the money that buys the food and clothes the kids. But honor, as well, to those whose necessary labor to keep the home and feed its members is not acknowledged by a wage.

All glory to the Captain whose foresight and skills brought the company through. She earned her bonus. But also glory to the composer of the ditty the troops whistled to keep their spirits up though none knew the name.

We live in a closed system in which all may be useful and all are worthy of a life -- if we choose to make it so. Only by denial of our interrelationship can we justify our failure to provide each for the other to ensure that all have enough. Only by insisting that nothing has value that is not bought with cash can we force the other into poverty after they have given their all, whether noticed or not.

Do not ask an 'ant' to do the tasks of a 'grasshopper'. Do not scant a 'grasshopper' because he cannot be an 'ant'. Both increase the richness of the other.
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