Helena and the Ants – a Modern Parable
or
Creationism vs Darwinism

Once upon a time there was a man called Roger.1

Roger had a model railway layout of which he was rather proud. This wasn’t a “train set???, this was a model railway, with scale buildings, and roads, and cars, and little model people. It had little model trees, which Roger had painstakingly made himself. As his skills developed, he rooted out some of his earlier efforts and replaced them with better, newer versions. It wasn’t a toy, it was a work-in-progress, a work of art.

Every so often, Roger would run some of his model trains around the railway – it seemed a bit pointless if he didn’t. But all the time the trains were running, his thoughts were focused on the next extension to the track, or a half-finished engine shed awaiting his attention. He couldn’t wait to put the trains back in the siding, turn the power off, and get back to construction.

Roger had a sister called Helena2. Helena was an electronics boffin, but at the time of this part of our story she’d taken the Devil’s Shilling, crossed to the dark side, and started to work as a software engineer. When she saw Roger’s hobby, and heard about his train running vs. construction dilemma, this combination of skills made her ideally placed to help him. Soon, there was a computer running in the corner of the hobby room: A train was running round the tracks, with the points switching automatically as it approached: The train stopped at stations, slowed down at bends, and hooted its horn at level crossings, all by itself, and Roger was free to build and improve.

As Helena’s programming skills grew, so more trains were able to run automatically: Each train knew its place in the hierarchy, and would give way to trains above it, and take priority over those below it. A timetable was introduced, with slow and fast passenger services serving the stations. Roger built a fantastically detailed goods yard, which Helena promptly automated: Cement trains stopped at the cement factory, container trains stopped at the docks (which Roger had also built) and occasionally a football special ran: Roger especially enjoyed the challenge of making the little beer cans, and the mechanism to hurl them from the carriage windows as they passed beauty spots alongside the line. The fame of Roger’s model railway grew, and it attracted visitors from all over. One day Helena’s friend Simon visited: He was interested, although somewhat disappointed by the lack of little model donkeys, and in his enthusiasm he completely forgot the Veg-a-Roma pizza he’d brought with him, which fell down behind a box of model engine spare parts out of sight3. It went manky, festered, and soon a host of new life forms appeared. In a rather improbable way, in the space of a few weeks, a species of super-intelligent ants had evolved in the dark space between the computer terminal and Roger’s model of Radcliffe-on-Soar power station (three coal trains a day, at 8, 12 and 4).

These ants began to take an interest in the world around them, and soon noticed the trains: They observed that the trains seemed to stop and start without outside influence: They gave way to each other, they never collided4, and all the cargos seemed to end up in the right place. Since there were no ants involved in the control of the trains, they deduced that there must be some hyper-intelligent being controlling the working of the trains. In a third improbable coincidence, they decided to name the hyper-intelligent being “Helena???. Before long debate raged about the nature of Helena, about why Helena had decided to meddle in the affairs of trains, and for no reason the ants could really justify, how many Milk Monsters could dance on the head of a pin. They didn’t actually know what a Milk Monster was, but like theologians everywhere, they didn’t let that stop them.

One day, an ant with a better capacity for logical thought than the others realised that the trains were obeying a set of describable rules: Goods trains always gave way to passenger trains, big trains gave way to small trains and so on. Soon, this ant drew up a table of simple rules which, he realised, were the total set of instructions governing the operation of the trains. Cock-a-hoop, he ran to tell all the other ants about his discovery: The trains weren’t controlled by a Helena at all, they were simply following a set of rules which anyone could understand. In fact, the very existence of Helena was in doubt.

It was a long time before any ant realised that, just because they could explain how Helena had done it, didn’t mean that Helena hadn’t done it. In reality, of course, the fact that all the trains followed such a simple set of rules pointed to the existence of an author for those rules…

Simon didn’t starve for lack of pizza. Roger never finished building his layout – there was always one more thing he wanted to do. It made no difference to Helena whether the ants believed in her or not5. And of course Milk Monsters don’t dance on the heads of pins – they’re too busy watching “Bear in the Big Blue House???

1 I actually know two people called Roger, either of whom could have been the one in this story. But they aren’t.
2 She was originally going to be his girlfriend. But I don’t think Roger would have a girlfriend, somehow.
3 I know the real Simon wouldn’t forget a Veg-a-Roma. It’s only a story, for goodness’ sake.
4 Roger and Helena had decided not to be that realistic.
5 To get it completely right, Helena would be sad that the ants didn’t want to be her friend. But there’s only so much you can do with a parable involving ants, even super-intelligent ones.

Comments are closed.