The Theosophical Society in America

Viewpoint: Temites, Towers, and Nuclei

By John Algeo, National President

Termites are an odd bunch. Humans don’t normally have much truck with them, or at least don’t want much. But those insects are oddly interesting.

The termites of Africa and Australia build huge towers that give the landscape the appearance of another planet. But the termites build their towers only under special circumstances—when they act together.

A termite going about its business alone accomplishes very little. It digs up a little pile of dirt, barely enough to notice. But if another termite happens along and gets interested, it starts to help. And then another comes, and yet another. And soon there is a nucleus of termites, all working together to turn a miserable little pile of dirt into an engineering feat—an immense structure with tunnels and passages, hidden chambers and spanning arches. Compared to the size of the builders, these high-rising skyscrapers are the biggest buildings on this planet.

Yet if you look at a single termite going its separate way, you would never imagine the power and skill that a collective nucleus of the creatures can express. Individually, they can do almost nothing, but when they get together, they can build mountains, if not move them. Together they have abilities that the individual lacks.

But there is something else that is odd about termites, and marvelous. The termite band has no architect directing the building. All the termites just get together, respond to one another by waving antennae and scurrying past. It looks like chaos and confusion. Each just doing what is natural for it and responding to the others in the nucleus, they raise a structure that may last for years or even for centuries. With no plans to consult and no architect to direct, they build a perfect tower.

What the individual termites do is messy, undirected, apparently pointless. But what comes out of their collective effort is order, direction, and intention. As Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers extrapolate from the termites’ behavior in their book A Simpler Way (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996, p. 68):

Life seeks order, but it uses messes to get there. Organizing occurs locally. Groups link up with other groups. From such small collectives, a larger system emerges. Many parallel activities, many trials and errors, are occurring everywhere in the system. Individuals determine their behavior from what they see going on around them. The result is a system so well-coordinated that it’s hard to believe someone, somewhere, is not directing the activity from on high. It took entomologists a long time to realize that there were no termite construction bosses.

Termites are an odd bunch. But then, if they could see us humans get together, they might think we are too.