David Coombs Responds

Mary Mullen’s review poses the question of whether Griffiths’ harmonic analogies can unsettle rigid and often ideologically pernicious formal analogies like the one Mill drew between slavery and the subjection of women. This astute question got me thinking about a moment when Darwin makes use of analogy with slavery in The Origin of Species that I find troubling. Notoriously, since the early nineteenth-century scientists have described the blood-red ant (Formica sanguinea) as a so-called slave-making species. Blood-red ants periodically raid the nests of the silky ant (Formica fusca), carrying silky ant larvae and pupae back to their own nests. Once they have matured, the captive silky ants work for their captors, primarily by caring for the blood-red ants’ young. In The Origin, Darwin expresses his initial doubt that any species could exhibit “so extraordinary and odious an instinct as that of making slaves.” In the deeply unsettling discussion that follows, however, he describes Formica sanguinea as exhibiting just that. The ants are identified as “red masters,” and he recounts an observation he made of one fierce and ultimately repulsed raid on “an independent community of the slave-species (F. fusca)” in terms that figure the ants as reenacting some of the horrors of transatlantic slave-trading as well as the heroic resistance to it. The description of his observations culminates in this extraordinary passage:

One evening I visited another community of F. sanguinea, and found a number of these ants returning home…carrying the dead bodies of F. fusca and numerous pupae. I traced a long file of ants burthened with booty, for about forty yards, to a very thick clump of heath…but I was not able to find the desolated nest in the thick heath. The nest, however, must have been close at hand, for two or three individuals of F. fusca were rushing about in the greatest agitation, and one was perched motionless with its own pupa in its mouth on the top of a spray of heath, an image of despair, over its ravaged home.[1]

Is the analogy between ant ethology and slavery here formal or harmonic? Does it naturalize the human institution of slavery or defamiliarize it so that we can see its brutality with a new clarity? However we answer these questions about this moment in The Origin, the underlying analogy here had a disturbing consequence we should note. Almost as soon as the analogy with slavery was drawn (the OED lists this term’s first usage as being in an 1816 entomology textbook), the silky ant was given a new name that, while never replacing its old common name, has clung persistently to it ever since: the “negro ant.” A formal analogy transformed Formica fusca into a study in the enduring capacity of the ideology of white supremacy to make the world in its image, so that even the ants become racialized.

[1] See Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, (Oxford: Oxford U P, 2008), 163-7.

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