From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 1, 1996, pp. 108-109.
The following article is copyright © 1996 by the Skeptics
Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119.
Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic
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WHAT IS THE ANT, SIR?
By Bernard Leikind
God sits in the captain's chair in the Universe's control room
wearing a virtual reality helmet. Angels waft gently from one
flickering control panel to another, adjusting the knobs and
peering at computer screens. Are they PCs or Macs? Wouldn't you
like to know? They are running a pre-creation simulation of the
Universe. The knobs control the fundamental properties of the
Universe. Time has not yet been created so nobody is in a hurry,
or maybe everything is happening at once. "What's the matter
with you?" God snaps at one of the angels. "The speed of light
is much too slow. I thought we agreed on 300,000 kilometers per
second." An angel spins a dial to a new setting and carefully
adjusts the vernier. "That's much better," God says as he
relaxes back into his chair. "Let me see. Didn't we agree that
in order to achieve my purpose for the Universe the fine
structure constant must be precisely 1/137.07? Where are my
notes? Yes. Here it is-- 1/137.07, exactly." An angel drifts to
the electromagnetic field section and carefully adjusts a
control until the display shows this peculiar number. Following
God's instructions the angels set all the other fundamental
numbers. God removes the helmet which has displayed simulations
of the Universe-to-be. "It looks good to me." In a moment
commemorated on T-shirts, God gazes at a blackboard with
Maxwell's equations on it, and commands, "Let there be light!"
Suddenly a tiny universe appears. Expanding at breakneck
speed, it thins and cools. Galaxies form and stars flicker on.
Around a minor star in an average galaxy a planet congeals. Do
you get the picture?
Fast forward about five billion years.
God's plan is working. At about the same time that the most
advanced nation on Earth produces humanity's crowning
achievement--the Golden Arches-- physicist Wolfgang Pauli dies.
An angel ushers him into God's study. "Wolfgang," God says, "I
liked your work about the exclusion principle. You really
figured out what I was up to. And I especially admired how you
deduced the existence of the neutrino. I did my best to hide it.
I gave it hardly any properties at all. I invited you to visit
me because I thought that you might have some questions for me."
Pauli asks the question that every physicist would ask given
the chance: "I always wondered why the fine structure constant
"A good question." God walks to his blackboard and begins
filling it with differential equations and geometric diagrams.
Finally he finishes the proof and brushes the chalk dust from
his hands and robe. God turns to Pauli and smiles.
"It's a beautiful and clever proof," Pauli declares.
"Certainly up to your usual standards. But over there, on the
third line from the bottom, I believe that minus sign should be
a plus sign. Let's see. That changes the result to 1 over 32
times 42 or 1/144."
"Gee willikers." God is dismayed. "I wonder why no one ever
noticed that before?" Reaching to the control panel, God adjusts
the fine structure constant to 1/144. "At least its a round
number. That .07 always bothered me."
But suddenly the universe begins to change. Electromagnetic
forces weaken, the stars shrink and their cores heat. The higher
temperatures increase the rate of nuclear fusion, heating the
stars even more. Gradually they became more brilliant. The
Earth, which has already changed radically as chemical forces
adjusted themselves to the new value, rapidly roasts to a crisp,
Physicists know many numbers like the fine structure constant
that seem to have a precisely set value. Even the tiniest change
in any one of these numbers would change the Universe so
radically that life as we know it could not exist. If there were
only a few of these numbers, or if they didn't have to be so
precisely tuned, they wouldn't intrigue physicists so much. But
there seem to be many of them. Those inclined to seek purpose in
the Universe point to these remarkably adjusted numbers as
evidence that there must be a plan.
Quantum physics teaches us
that observers contribute to the results of measurements that
they make. Since the Universe is a quantum system, some
distinguished physicists have argued that, in a sense, we create
the Universe by observing it.
These two streams of thought converge to produce the Anthropic
Principle; that the Universe somehow exists for us and that we
are an expression of its purpose. Humans, so some thinkers would
have it, are so remarkable that we must be the fruition of some
grand design. Of course, a world that contains Geraldo, the OJ
trial, Mozart, the Hillside Strangler, Rembrandt, the Bosnian
war, Newt Gingrich, Shakespeare, and Einstein seems to some a
chaotic madhouse. Seekers for purpose, like the author of
Job, often propose that God must have inscrutable
Blinded by parochial interests and supposing that what
interests them must also interest God, proponents of the
Anthropic principle have, nevertheless, almost got it right.
They suppose that our wonderful achievements in art and science,
our vast numbers, our large brains, our major effects upon the
Earth are proof of our importance. I announce here, for readers
of Skeptic, the true principle, the Ant-thropic
During the age of dinosaurs, our ancestors were small
insignificant creatures. Fortunately, a passing asteroid wiped
out the competition, creating ecological space for our
development. Can that asteroid have been a random event? Think
of how carefully it must have been aimed. What if it were
slightly too big and wiped everything out, or too small and too
many lizards survived? It may surprise you to know that during
the age of dinosaurs, ants were relatively insignificant. There
were only a few primitive species. The asteroid didn't smash
into the Earth to allow the evolution of primates and humans,
but to allow for the evolution of ants. How do I know this?
Well, look at the results.
There is only one species of humans and even counting all of
the primates we have only a few dozens of relatives. There are
at least 9,000 species of ants and entomologists are still
finding new ones. Entomologists estimate that there may be 10
quadrillion ants in the world, more than a million ants for
every man, woman, and child. Many of you, no doubt, believe that
you have met your personal ants.
Now, a million ants only weigh a few kilograms, so we outweigh
them, but no ant ever needed liposuction. Do we want to claim
superiority based upon adipose tissue?
Some humans might claim superiority based upon our
achievements such as agriculture, civil society, architecture,
and art. We should not feel so confident.
Consider architecture and urban planning. Long ago ants
achieved things that we have reached only recently. Their houses
are air cooled, well-drained, structurally sound, and clean.
They don't burn and they don't collapse in earthquakes. The
streets don't need traffic lights and they don't have pot holes.
They are safe for females at night.
What about agriculture? Some ants remain in the stage of
primitive hunter-gatherers, but others have highly specialized
agricultural or garden societies. These ants gather leaves as
nutrients to grow a specialized fungus or mushroom. Other ants
are herders. They tend aphids. They herd them on my orange tree
leaves, protect them from enemies, and milk them for food. Ant
agriculture is all natural, renewable, and does not pollute the
I don't want to make ants out to be saints. They raid one
another's nests, steal food, carry off babies, and take slaves.
They form vast armies that march cross country destroying
everything in their paths. But in a final analysis, ant pluses
far outweigh ant minuses.
Do humans create the Universe by
observing it? Maybe ants do the job. They are known to navigate
by guiding on the sun and they can use polarized sky light to
help them locate it.
Ants communicate by taste. They send chemicals back and forth
to recognize nestmates or interlopers, express their feelings,
and guide their sisters to food. Ants spray noxious chemicals on
Ants share many other interests with humans. Some like eating
out at picnics and restaurants, while others prefer cocooning at
Ants have achieved remarkable social organizations by
assigning each to the tasks for which they are most appropriate.
Males eat and make love. Females run the show and do all the
work. Perhaps that's why things run so smoothly in the ant
All of us would like to know the meaning of life. In Kurt
Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, a distant galactic
civilization created humanity so a spare part for one of its
rocket ships would get to Titan, a moon of Saturn. In The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the crucial answer to the
question is 42. Why do we require that our existence have a
cosmic significance? What if ants are the answer? Are we to fall
into despair and nihilism? Or should we find our own purpose?
The ability to create our own purposes is what sets us apart
from all other creatures. And it is by our choices that our peers
and descend-ants will judge us.