I don’t suppose you know much about termites, so I’ll remind you of the salient facts. They are among the most highly evolved of the social insects, and live in vast colonies throughout the tropics. They can’t stand cold weather, nor, oddly enough, can they endure direct sunlight. When they have to get from one place to another, they construct little covered roadways.
The termites seem to have some unknown and almost instantaneous means of communication, and though the individual termites are pretty helpless and dumb, a whole colony behaves like an intelligent animal.
Some writers have drawn comparisons between a termitary and a human body, which is also composed of individual living cells making up an entity much higher than the basic units.
These creatures are often called “white ants”, but that’s a completely incorrect name as they aren’t ants at all but quite a different species of insect.
Excuse this little lecture, but I get quite enthusiastic about termites myself. Did you know, for example, that they not only cultivate gardens but also keep cows – insect cows, of course – and milk the, Yes, the termites are sophisticated little devils, even though they do it all by instinct (supposedly).
To communicate with termites, we must do for them what von Frische had done with bees – he’d learned their language. But the language of the termites is much more complex than the system of communication that bees use, which as you probably know, is based on dancing.
Our technology enables us to listen to the termites talking among each other, but also permit us to speak to them. Actually that’s not as fantastic as it sounds, if you we use the word “speak” in its widest sense. We speak to a good many animals – not always with our voices, by any means. When you throw a stick for your dog and expect him to run and fetch it, that’s a form of speech - sign language. Thus we could work out some kind of code which the termites understand, though how efficient it will be at communicating ideas I didn’t know…
Have you ever wondered who will take over when we, the Humans, are finished? Remember that the termites, as individuals, have virtually no intelligence. But their colony as a whole is a very high type of organisms – and an immortal one, barring accidents. Their progress froze in its present instinctive pattern millions of years before Man was born, and by itself it can never escape from its present sterile perfection. It has reached a dead-end – because the termites have no tools, no effective way of controlling nature. But you cannot judge the termitary by human standards. What we can hope to do is to jolt its rigid, frozen culture – to knock it out of the groove in which it has stuck for so many millions of years. I will give it tools and new techniques, and before the next generation comes we’ll to see the termites beginning to invent things for themselves.
I do not believe that Man will survive, yet I hope some of the things he has discovered, will be preserved by the next tenants of the Earth. If the Man is to be a dead-end, another race should be given a helping hand. A supertermite, if it ever evolves, will have to remain for millions of years and reach a very high level of attainment.
Besides, Man has no rival on this planet and thus it may do him good to have one. It may be the Mankind’s salvation. (Not that I’m hostile to mankind. In fact, I’m sorry for it. I simply believe that humanity had shot its bolt, and I wish to save something from the wreckage. Perhaps there may be some kind of mutual understanding, since two cultures so utterly dissimilar as Man and Termite need have no cause for military conflict. But I couldn’t really believe this, and if a contest comes, I’m not certain who will win. For what use would man’s weapons be against an intelligent enemy who could lay waste all the wheat fields and all the rice crops in the world?
I think we should let the termites have their chance. I don’t see how they could make a worse job of it than we’ve done. Illustration : Megan Jorgensen