Good Ideology; Wrong Species

Edward O. Wilson? Bert Hölldobler? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Social insects are famous for exhibiting a division of labor and a willingness to act for the overall good of the colony. The preeminent biologist Edward O. Wilson whose specialty is the study of ants was once asked about human politics, and he replied with a comment similar to the following regarding socialism:

Wonderful idea. Wrong species.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In October 1994 the “Los Angeles Times” published a profile of Edward O. Wilson which included an interview. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

On another morning, he compares human beings to ants. Consider man’s selfishness and ambition versus the insects’ drive to help their community. They’ll sacrifice their lives for the common good, if need be.

Biology doesn’t get more basic than this, and Wilson ends the lesson amid gales of laughter by raising the subject of Marxism. Why did it fail?

“Good ideology,” he says dryly. “Wrong species.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




Also in 1994 Wilson co-authored with follow researcher Bert Hölldobler the volume “Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration” which included the following: 2

In our view, the competitive edge that led to the rise of the ants as a world-dominant group is their highly developed, self-sacrificial colonial existence. It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances.

Karl Marx just had the wrong species.

The book review of the “Journey to the Ants” printed in “Los Angeles Times” highlighted the remark: 3

There are about ten thousand trillion ants on the planet at this moment. The secret of their world-wide success, as Wilson and [Bert Holldobler] explain, is their highly social existence: “It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species.”

In 1998 “New York Times” journalist Nicholas Wade wrote an article about Wilson that referred to the remark: 4

Karl Marx, Dr. Wilson once joked when talking about ants, was correct: he just applied his theory to the wrong species. Ant societies, of course, are very different from the biped variety, but one common feature is the inherited nature of social behavior. Like any other feature of an organism, behavior can be shaped by evolution. Ants have evolved quite elaborate behaviors, but most are rigidly determined.

The 2008 edition of the “Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” contained an entry with a slightly different wording: 5

on Marxism, from an expert on ants:
Wonderful theory, wrong species.

Edward O. Wilson 1929– : in Los Angeles Times 21 October 1994

In 2009 “The New York Times” published “A Conversation with Bert Hölldobler” during which he said the following 6

I’m not saying that everyone should be paid the same. People have tried and it was a dismal failure. Karl Marx was right, but he picked the wrong species. With the ants, he was right. In their world, the individual is nothing, the society is everything.

In conclusion, while discussing Marxism in 1994 Edward O. Wilson said “Good ideology. Wrong species.” A similar comment appeared in the 1994 book “Journey to the Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and Wilson.

Image Notes: Picture of fire ants from skeeze at Pixabay. Stylized representation of a red flag; original PNG by Nikodemos; author: Wereon; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to mdsimpson05 whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1994 October 21, Los Angeles Times, Natural Wonder At heart, Edward Wilson’s an ant man. But it’s his theories on human behavior that stir up trouble by Josh Getlin, Quote Page 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  2. 1994, Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, Chapter: The Dominance of Ants, Quote Page 9, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1994 October 23, Los Angeles Times, In Love with Living Things by Jonathan Weiner, (Book review of Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson; Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson), Quote Page 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  4. 1998 May 12, New York Times, Scientist at Work: Edward O. Wilson, From Ants to Ethics: A Biologist Dreams of Unity of Knowledge by Nicholas Wade, Quote Page F1, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Ned Sherrin, Category Politics, Quote Page 259, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 2009 June 16, New York Times, A Conversation with Bert Hölldobler: ‘The insect societies we study have evolutionary success because they are organized into a division of labor system.’ by Claudia Dreifus, Quote Page D2, New York. (ProQuest)