On Sacrificing Ants & the Scientific Spectacles

In this video from My Amazing Earth, we see a group of scientists using concrete to slowly fill a giant ant colony in order to reveal it’s 8 meter deep structure. It’s way cool to experience such wonder at the alien works of an emergently complex super-organism made of such tiny nonconscious components, but I do feel a little uncomfortable that possibly the largest ant colony on earth has to be exterminated and excavated to be known. I’m wrestling with why exactly…since we sacrifice creatures all the time for a wide variety of reasons, and this is hardly the most heinous or unjustified. Science is but one of many causes that can be justified. The question becomes: what does it mean to be known? To what extent is it creating knowledge or just a spectacle of nature and science? How much knowledge is really gained from this destruction in particular? Does a spectacle warrant sacrifice?

While I was thinking of this in terms of culture and science, when I posted this on Facebook, my friend Mitch Artman responded with Hindu story:

“In this story from the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Indra defeats Vrtrá and releases the waters. Elevated to the rank of King of the gods, Indra orders the heavenly craftsman, Vishvakarma, to build him a grand palace. Full of pride, Indra continues to demand more and more improvements for the palace. At last, exhausted, Vishvakarma asks Brahma the Creator for help. Brahma in turn appeals to Vishnu, the Supreme Being.

Vishnu visits Indra’s palace in the form of a brahmin boy; Indra welcomes him in. Vishnu praises Indra’s palace, casually adding that no former Indra had succeeded in building such a palace. At first, Indra is amused by the brahmin boy’s claim to know of former Indras. But the amusement turns to horror as the boy tells about Indra’s ancestors, about the great cycles of creation and destruction, and even about the infinite number of worlds scattered through the void, each with its own Indra. The boy claims to have seen them all. During the boy’s speech, a procession of ants had entered the hall. The boy saw the ants and laughed. Finally humbled, Indra asks the boy why he laughed. The boy reveals that the ants are all former Indras.”

As he went on to explain,

it’s a way to see that humans who are power-hungry whores are not significant, and could be humbled by their modest ant-brethren if only they would identify with them. when we destroy the ants (and everything else), we destroy ourselves.

Mitch is good at shifting perspectives towards the spiritual question at hand. But in that case, what does this story tell us about what we are doing to ourselves when we are destroying the ants? Yes, are we willing to destroy the ants, but not merely for callousness, or because they bother us, or something else that degrades their nature, our relationship to them, and ourselves. We do it because we want to know them and to wonder at them, and also to wonder at our ability to cleverly figure out ways to know and wonder at them. And for that they are sacrifice-able. It raises questions about the costs of knowledge, even knowledge we use for good, but especially knowledge for its own sake. Who do we sacrifice for knowledge? Would we sacrifice ourselves? (Shades of Agamben, I think, but I haven’t read Homo Sacer.) Destroying ourselves for the spectacle of wonder certainly seems…disconcerting.

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