A Quantum Physicist’s View of the World: Schrödinger’s Ant

Erwin Schrodinger

Erwin Schrödinger, iconic among physicists for his triumphs in quantum theory and wave mechanics, possessed a unique blend of scientific scaffolding and an impartially voracious imagination. His short book, My View of the World, houses long-cultivated insights bred from that ever-fascinating mutuality between physics and philosophy, covering speculations from metaphysics to the industrial attitudes of insects.

​Citing the community-oriented collective consciousness of ants and bees, the following excerpt adds to the diversity of calls for introspection as the next evolutionary stage of industrial development, noting the intricate interplay between individual psyche and collective society:

​“…an egotistical attitude in general is a virtue, helpful to the species, in an animal living in solitude, but becomes damaging to the species if it lives in community with others. Hence those with a long phylogenetic history of city-building, like ants and bees, have long since abandoned all egotism. Man, who is obviously much younger in this respect, is only beginning to do so; with us this transformation is even now in progress. It is bound to take place, with all the necessity of a natural law, for an animal which advances to the building of cities without abandoning egotism will not survive.”

— Schrödinger, My View of the World, p. 57

With the Industrial Revolution still in our rear-view mirror, Schrödinger cautions that our species may not endure the transition to city-building (as ants have seemingly mastered over their 120-million year history) without learning to value the collective over the individual. This is not an attack on individual liberties, or a 1960’s hippie-proclamation, but an amoral observation on biological evolution. It seems that we may already know this. He extracts attitudes embedded within our existing value structures, echoing this natural law:

​“…for every normally constituted human being nowadays, unselfishness is the unquestioned theoretical standard of value, the ideal criterion of action…I perceive an indication that we are at the beginning of a biological transformation from egotistic to altruistic attitudes.”

– Ibid, p. 58

As biological transformations of this sort operate on vast time scales alien to the human mind (I would imagine), the substance recent decades bring to Schrödinger’s hypothesis remains unclear. Still, the notion that a species-wide evolution away from egoism is what paves the way for enduring city-builders opens an intriguing discussion. Given that ants are one of the most successful species in the history of our planet, with a population estimated around 10 thousand trillion (from Edward Wilson and Bert Hölldobler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Ants), there may be something to learn from these altruistic insects.

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