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Cam Marston on the Altruism of Ants


On this week’s Keepin’ It Real, Cam Marston relates the behavior of a colony of ants to a seven hour flight delay he experienced last week trying to get home.

Let’s talk about ants. Not females, like Aunt Martha, but bugs. Ants create complex colonies where every one of them exists to support the growth and safety of the colony. Ants can’t help it. It’s not their choice. They’re driven entirely by instinct. No ant finds food and considers keeping it for themselves. They turn and tell the colony and then lead the colony back to the food. This instinctual, non-selfish, altruistic behavior is the reason for the species’ remarkable success.

I learned this reading the biography of biologist Edward Wilson on a flight one week ago today that was ultimately delayed seven hours trying to get from Dallas to Mobile. Wilson has deep Alabama roots. He may not be the most famous person from our state, but he may be the most influential.

Wilson also said that selfishness has value, too, but only in individuals. A selfish person will win against an altruistic person, but selfish groups will fail. It takes time, but they always fail. Altruistic, non-selfish groups, will grow, they’ll succeed. They’ll eat and breed and survive and thrive.

Ants don’t have a choice in the matter, but people do, and our bias, our instinct, is towards individual selfishness. We must work to overcome this instinct, bond as a group, and become altruistic. It’s hard, but it works.

We’ve seen this play out on grand stages. I listened to Nick Saban discuss the loss of the national championship a few years back because some of his players played selfishly as they were thinking about their NFL draft position. His team, full of talent but with some who were playing selfishly, couldn’t defeat an unselfish team.

We see this nationally, as our once unselfish nation has moved towards selfish goals and selfish politicians. As a result, no one can deny that our nation, once described as the shining light on the hill, is dimming.

Now, I’m a workplace consultant, and I can’t help but try to apply these lessons to what I experienced on last Friday’s flights. I read about one airline who has begun a new way to compensate flight attendants in a way that benefits the attendants. The airline finds ways to help their passengers, their pilots, their gate agents and on and on. That’s the airline I fly the most, and I’ve had zero issues on my nearly forty flights this year - Zero.

And two of my three flights on this current airline this year have had significant delays. Are they selfish? I don’t know them well enough to know, but it sure appears so. All of Wilson’s research on selfish groups and their demise played out in front of me over those seven hours of flight delays, and I wish someone could get this message to their CEO and send him outside to study ants.

I’m Cam Marston, and I’m just trying to Keep it Real.

Cam Marston is the Keepin' It Real host for Alabama Public Radio.