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The Law Pebble

William Simpson watches a small society suffer a small catastrophe.

There was once a queen of an ant colony who grew exceedingly wise. She built an anthill larger than the nests of her ancestors, and the trails of her colony extended for hundreds of feet in many directions. Everyday, she fared sumptuously on the choicest morsels from far and wide.

As it happened, the anthill had been built beneath the floorboards of a large bakery – one of the largest in the land. The bakery was so large that the ants had never been outside it. But the queen knew where to send her workers to get the delicacies she wanted. Since the beginning of her reign, she had kept a careful diary, and she had learned to turn what she saw into Wisdom. A part of her wisdom was etched onto a pebble upon which she would stand, from time to time, to teach the colony. She had seen that, after sunrise, it rained sugar on the tablelands far above the anthill. She had deduced that, when raspberries appeared in the baskets in the morning, and silver pans were set by the stove in the afternoon, there would be delicious jam for her workers in the evening.

Now the queen had many advisers in her court. Some of them sought to dissuade her of such fanciful notions. There was no rhyme or reason for how things happened in the bakery, and an ant’s life was too short to ask questions. The only thing that mattered was to take whatever they could get whenever it appeared. Others, seeking to impress the colony, claimed they could make sugar rain from the sky more frequently, or turn fruit into jam, in return for special favours at court. But the queen put these advisers to the test, and when they failed, she fed them to her children. She had seen that sugar came from the sky after sunrise, and hot stoves must be lit before sweet jam could be found on the tables. That was the way of things. In time, the colony also became wise, and the queen’s pebble brought great prosperity to the anthill. It was rolled to the top of the hill, and its rules were taught to each generation of the workers, who went forth at the appointed times to gather food. They called it the Law Pebble.

As the years of her reign passed by, the queen grew old and doubtful, and she wondered about the laws she had written on the pebble in the days of her youth. She had heard rumours from a wandering drone of other lands beyond her borders – lands without sugar or jam, where life was hard and pickings were sparse; a land where ants did not know where their next meal would come from. Why should there be any fruit in the bakery in the mornings? Without fruit, there would be no jam.

One day, the Head Baker returned. He had been teaching cookery in another county, but had left instructions with each of his workers telling them what they should do. Every day, they did as they were bidden and followed his recipes to the letter: cakes were baked in the morning, fruit jam was jarred in the evening, and sugar fell onto the tabletops, as the old queen had said it should. But today, he wanted to surprise everybody. Today, he wanted to remind the other bakers who was the Head of the bakery. So he decided to make the most stupendous sponge cake they had ever seen. And he began before the sun had risen. He brought his own special jam too, which he had made at home, spread it thickly between the layers of sponge, and sprinkled the cake with sugar, even before the sun’s first gleaming rays fell upon the tabletops. Then he placed the cake into a large oven and left, for he had business in the town.

Some of the colony’s workers had been up early that morning. They had smelt the delicious aroma of baking, and had gone out to investigate. When the reports of sugar showering the tabletop before sunrise reached the queen, and of sticky spots of jam appearing in the morning, before the stoves were lit, the court was split between confusion and derision. Some said that these ants were troublemakers and story-tellers, and insisted that they should be fed to the colony’s children, like the charlatans before who had pretended to know better than the Law Pebble. Others asked whether the pebble might not be altered in some way, to allow for cases such as these. And there were others that angrily denounced the wisdom of their aged queen as nothing but sophistry, and demanded a return to the Old Ways. The old queen, seeking to placate her divided colony, rolled the Law Pebble away into her private chambers, and a new queen was appointed for the colony. She began to teach that each ant could discover its own pebble of wisdom, deep within its thorax, and should let its fellow-workers decide what was true for themselves. Many of the ants left the colony that day.

But the Head Baker was a busy man, and could not often afford to be baking before sunrise without disturbing the smooth running of his business. Before long, the work of the bakery resumed. After sunrise, it rained sugar on the tablelands far above the anthill. And when raspberries appeared in the baskets in the morning, and silver pans were set by the stove in the afternoon, there was delicious jam to be found in the evening.

Ant photo © Katja Schulz 2014

Nevertheless, the colony remained divided, and the old queen’s Law Pebble was all but forgotten. The great anthill fell into disrepair. In the end, it was discovered by the bakers, for the ants no longer observed the proper times and places for foraging in the bakery, and they were caught stealing muffins at midday. One morning, the bakers heated large cauldrons and kettles and poured boiling water through the cracks in the floor, into the very heart of the colony. Then, they prized away the floorboards and stamped the anthill flat into the ground. The colony perished that day, and the new queen was carried away shrieking in a torrent of boiling water, clutching the Law Pebble in her scalded mandibles.

© Dr William M.R. Simpson 2016

William Simpson completed a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of St Andrews in 2014. In 2016 he obtained an MPhil in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, where he is now beginning a second doctorate in analytic philosophy.

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