Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Medical Classics

The Social World of the Ants Compared With That of Man

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 03 June 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2918
  1. Desmond O’Neill, consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine, Dublin
  1. doneill{at}

    Imagine a world where there are weavers, butchers, cattle rearers, masons, road makers, harvesters, bakers, mushroom farmers, excellent nurses of various kinds, gardeners, warriors, pacificists, slave makers, thieves, brigands, and parasites, but where we find no professors, orators, governors, bureaucrats, or generals, nor even corporals; nor do we find capitalists, speculators, or mere swindlers. This idyllic world was described almost 10 years before the great depression, and 80 years before our current recession, by one of the great medical polymaths of the last century, Auguste Forel (1848-1931).

    That the world described in this exquisite two volume book belongs to ants should come as no surprise, since Forel was one of the world’s greatest authorities on ants at the turn of the last century. By the outbreak of the first world war he had collected the largest known scientific collection of ants, and several species of ants are named after him. In a remarkable and extremely full life he was variously a pioneering neuroanatomist (hence the eponymous fields of Forel in the brain), a reforming psychiatrist, an innovator in treatment of alcohol dependency, the author of the first popular textbook of neurosciences, and that of the most widely read book on sexuality before the writings of Freud. However, myrmecology, the study of ants, was his earliest and deepest scientific love. Forel’s obsession with ants was shared by his wife and extended to the name of his house —La Fourmilière (The Ant’s Nest).

    The narrative of the book starts out with the phylogeny and ontogeny of the ant world, and leads into their anatomy and geographical distribution, where we learn among other things that there are no ants in Greenland or Iceland. Then we learn of the sense organs, physiology, and psychology of ants, as well as of their parasites, their symbiotes, and the structure of their nests. At this point the book really takes off, with a description of the social rituals and roles of ants that would do Margaret Mead proud. From nuptials to nurses, games to gardeners, miners to masons, and carton making to road construction, the range of roles and sophistication of the social organisation of the ant world unfolds.

    In an epilogue, Forel reflects on the parallels between the worlds of men and ants—for example, the ants’ most dangerous enemies are other ants, just as man’s most dangerous enemies are other men. Without making hubristic and over-reaching judgment, he provides us with striking insights into how organisation that we might view as arising from our enhanced cognitive status—acting as a shopkeeper, or being a landed proprietor—existed in the ant world well ahead of the human world.

    Forel’s own philosophies (he was a prominent social democrat and Bah’ai) act as a gentle undercurrent but do not intrude until the epilogue. There are intimations of a disposition towards eugenics that would eventually lead to a revision of Forel’s reputation and the dropping of his portrait on Swiss 1000 franc banknotes.

    Notwithstanding, the attractions of this work are many: the knowledge is often from first hand pioneering observations and is proof of extraordinarily wide ranging travels. The copious illustrations are superb, many from Forel’s own drawings. As a scientist and intellectual he is generous, with constant reference to those who taught him, as well as to contemporary colleagues. It remains an encouragement to doctors that medicine, for all its subspecialisation, is a broad chapel that accommodates an extraordinary breadth of intellectual endeavour.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;240:c2918


    • By Auguste Forel

    • First published 1921-23