Thinking Outside Of The Jar

If you collect 100 black ants and 100 fire ants and put them in a glass jar nothing will happen. But if you take the jar, shake it violently and leave it on the table, the ants will start killing each other.

Attributed to Sir David Attenborough

The quote above, as witty (and true) as it rings, is not, unfortunately, something that David Attenborough said. Most likely, this comes from a much earlier reference, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle novel, specifically in this passage:

“What he was doing was spooning different kinds of bugs into the jar and making them fight. “The bug fight was so interesting that I stopped crying right away–forgot all about the old man. I can’t remember what all Frank had fighting in the jar that day, but I can remember other bug fights we staged later on: one stag beetle against a hundred red ants, one centipede against three spiders, red ants against black ants. They won’t fight unless you keep shaking the jar. And that’s what Frank was doing, shaking, shaking, the jar.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Probably because David Attenborough narrated so many nature shows (including one called Empire Of The Ants), someone thought the quote will carry more weight. It’s a common thing these days, as we already live in a post-factual world.

The Message Should Not Be Obfuscated By The Messenger

So, what do we do now? We have a quote which rings true, but after some significant digging, we find out that the quote was misattributed. The closest thing to the quote comes from a Sci-Fi novel, a work of fiction.

Is it then fundamentally untrue?

I’m sure there are anecdotal experiments about that. I even remember I was catching bees as a kid myself and put them in a jar. I don’t remember any of them fighting with each other. But I do remember them getting nervous if their surrounding was getting stressful (if they ran out of air, for instance).

So, the source of the quote is hazy. Does this makes it less credible? If we go that route, then we should probably start with the Bible. It went through so many modifications, adjustments, translations and I know everybody knows that. And still, the moral value of the Bible is still one of its most important attributes, shaping behaviors, lives, communities, for thousands of years.

What Is The Jar?

The bottom line is that there is an innate tendency for cooperation in all sentient beings. But when two allegedly different groups (red or black ants, black or white people, pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine people) are violently shaken, they rush in finding the responsible for their problems in the closest group they can see.

In the midst of the storm, they lack the patience and clarity to look beyond their collective life, and see if there’s something else beyond that. They might not even be equipped to understand the beings who are shaking the jar.

Or they may think no one is shaking the jar, that’s how life is, conflictual and aggressive. If they were born after the shaking began, then they literally don’t have any other understanding of life. For someone born during war, peace is stressful.

So the real challenge is not thinking outside of the box, but thinking outside of the jar.

Because there will always be a jar that encompasses us, that groups us on various levels. It may be an invisible jar separating us by the color of our skin, by the amount of wealth we possess, by historical belonging to a cast system, by a million and one other causes.

And yet, the natural tendency, the one that can be observed in any sentient beings when context is not stressful, is the one of peaceful cooperation.

Try And Look Beyond The Jar

Is there someone shaking it? If so, make everybody aware about that, eventually they will see it too.

There is nobody shaking the jar, as in “intentionally”? Then you might be in the middle of natural disaster. Sorry to break it to you, but we’re not as mighty as we think we are, we are still at the mercy of elements.

But, precisely because of that, during natural disasters the reaction should be one of collaboration, not one of fear. It’s not the fault of other people if a volcano erupted, right? We can really see beyond that, aren’t we?

The only real enemy is the one who’s starting the war, not the people you’re forced to fight against.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

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