The Large Ant as an Ineffectual Critique of Human Moral Nature
What is “human nature”? Do a natural set of behavioral paradigms govern our morals at the most basic level? And more importantly, are those prescribed behaviors inherently good, or naturally evil? The Large Ant by Howard Fast depicts human nature as leaning toward the latter. Many other artistic and literary works seem to take this position, arguing that because humans have the capacity to commit evil deeds, they must themselves be evil. In Fast’s view, humans are naturally selfish and xenophobic, reacting to the unknown with violence instead of simple curiosity. This story, however, presents an overly cynical and unrealistic glimpse of human nature at its worst. Its arguments are often self-contradictory, and in the end, The Large Ant’s critique of human nature proves unjustifiably negative.
The story itself begins in a non-linear fashion. The protagonist muses about the end of the world, and different scenarios that will bring about this end. He eventually reaches the conclusion that humans will wipe each other out. “We could find a way to feed any number of people and perhaps even a way to avoid wiping each other out with the bomb.” the protagonist mentions. “Those things we are very good at, but we have never been any good at changing ourselves or the way we behave” (Fast, 150).
The story continues from there, with the protagonist narrating a series of past events. The action begins with the protagonist, a man named Morgan, relaxing alone in his isolated summer cottage in the Adirondacks. While reading in his bedroom, he notices an extremely large ant-like creature approaching him. Panicking, Morgan grabs the nearest object, a golf club, and beats the “ant” to death. After recovering from the initial shock, he decides to bring the deceased creature to the insect curator
at the local museum. The man’s name is Bertram Lieberman, and, flanked by a government official and a senator, he tells Morgan the bizarre story behind the “large ant”.
Lieberman begins by asking Morgan why he killed the ant. Morgan at first does not know how to respond; he considers the question irrelevant. After further prodding, Morgan admits he does not know why his first instinct was to kill the ant. It is then that Lieberman delivers one of the story’s most memorable lines, and arguably its defining statement: “The answer is very simple, Mr. Morgan. You killed it because you are a human being” (Fast, 154).
Lieberman then shows Morgan eight similar specimens, all showing signs of being violently killed. Dissecting one, Lieberman shows Morgan tools that the “ant” carries in its thorax. It is explained that this, along with their large brains, proves the creatures to be intelligent. Their origin is unknown, but Lieberman seems to imply that these creatures are visiting from another planet. Lieberman also mentions that, as part of an insect hive-mind, these creatures likely have no conception of murder, and likely meant no harm. Morgan catches on, and asserts firmly that he had no idea that what he killed was an intelligent creature. The story ends with Morgan and Lieberman speculating as to the repercussions to their actions, hoping that these creatures will not return with vengeful ambitions.
The story raises many questions about human nature, and the question of why Morgan killed the ant is a very interesting one. Many of Lieberman’s dialogue appears to provide elegant arguments for the inherent violence of human nature. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the philosophical argument presented by this story is grossly oversimplified, one-sided, and even self-contradictory.
The most glaring inconsistency in the story’s line of reasoning is the contention that the violent nature of Morgan’s first response to the creature makes him evil. The
logical framework of the previously mentioned quote - “You killed it because you are a human being” - breaks down when juxtaposed...
Cited: Fast, Howard. "The Large Ant." 1960. Imprints 12. Toronto: Gage Learning Corporation, 2002. 150-58. Print.
Steven Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Perf. Steven Pinker. TED. Sept. 2007. Web.
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