In May and June 2021, a clumsy parable attributed to David Attenborough circulated, telling the story of 100 black ants and 100 fire ants trapped in a jar, who were happy and peaceful until unspecified outside forces began “shaking the jar”:
Who shook the jar? pic.twitter.com/Gzm26UTopH
— Sue Perkins 💙 (@sueperkins) June 7, 2021
Wise words from David Attenborough about what happens if you put 100 black ants and 100 red ants in a jar. pic.twitter.com/wy5JW8VBkN
— Babar Ahmad (@FreeBabarAhmad) May 26, 2021
On Twitter, the David Attenborough “ants in a jar” story tended to circulate in image form due to its length. Variations on Facebook had five-figure share counts, and a transcribed version of the tale (typically accompanied by the same images of red and black ants).
In March 2021, a Reddit user asked about the quote on r/AskHistorians. At that point, Attenborough wasn’t mentioned:
A commonly shared version read:
If you collect 100 black ants and 100 fire ants and put them in a glass jar, nothing will happen.
But if you take the jar, shake it violently and leave it on the table, the ants will start killing each other.
Red believes that black is the enemy, while black believes that red is the enemy, when the real enemy is the person who shook the jar.
The same is true in society.
– Men vs. Women
– Black vs. White
– Faith vs. Science
– Young vs. Old
Before we fight each other, we must ask ourselves: Who shook the jar?
~ David Attenborough~
Later versions of the text and image pairing had words on the image of ants (“Is this what’s happening in America?”), and an implication was clear — sincere causes including anti-racism efforts (“Black vs. White”) or gender equality (“Men vs. Women”) or separation of church and state (“Faith vs. Science”) were solely the “fault” of outside forces, in this case, the proverbial “jar shaker.”
Moreover, the issues to which the meme alluded, it hinted, would disappear or be resolved if only unseen forces hadn’t “shook the jar.” In that sense and outside determining attribution, the viral parable was dismissive of legitimate grievances and downplayed credible concern over issues of race, gender, religion (or lack of religion), “etc.”
Intent to bypass matters of legitimate concern were more apparent in an October 2020 iteration shared on Facebook, this time not attributed to Attenborough. In that version, public health safety protocols were pinpointed as efforts to “shake the jar”:
If you get 100 red fire ants and 100 large black ants and put them in a jar, at first, nothing will happen
But, if you shake the jar and dump them back on the ground the ants will fight until they kill each other
The thing is, the red ants think the black ants are the enemy, and vice versa, when in reality, the real enemy is the person who shook the jar
in my opinion this is what’s happening today
Liberal vs Conservative
Black vs White
Pro Mask vs Anti Mask
The question we need to be asking ourselves is who’s shaking the jar? saw this on a friends feed and wanted to share……
Chronologically, it seemed the attribution to Attenborough occurred around April 2021. A February 2021 opinion piece (“Opinion/Chidester: Question who is shaking the jar”) made mention of the 100 ants in a jar yarn (but not Attenborough), and it fleshed out the political undertones of the message:
There is an interesting social media meme that floats across my eyes every so often. Perhaps you have seen it. The unknown author writes “If you can catch about 100 red fire ants that live in the southwestern desert and also about 100 of those large black ants that live there and drop them in the same jar, not much will happen– until you shake the jar vigorously and dump them out on the ground. The red ants will attack the black ants and the black ants will attack the red ants and they’ll devastate each other. The thing is, the red ants think the enemy is the black ants and the black ants think the enemy is the red ants and all those ants put together never do figure out that the real enemy is the guy who shook the jar.”
Like many of you, I am an ant living in the same jar with an ant of a different type. The truth is we interact everyday with people who share different political beliefs, yet if we strip politics out of the conversation and focus on the issues, amazingly we solve problems.
So, if we are the ants, who is the “guy” shaking the jar? Usually it consists of two culprits, political beings (elected politicians, appointed “servants,” or those serving in political organizations), and a profit-driven media. Both ‘benefit’ from certain aspects of societal conflict, and both absurdly believe they are also the cure “of that which ails us.”
A June 8 2021 reprint of the story on expressandstar.com simply attributed the commentary to Attenborough, but in that telling, the tale served as an entry for a longer treatise on British prisons:
It you put 100 black ants and 100 fire ants into a glass jar, nothing will happen. But if you shake the jar violently, the ants will start to kill each other. The black ants believe the fire ants are the enemy, the fire ants believe the opposite.
The same is true of society: men versus women, black versus white, faith versus science, young versus old. The enemy is not our opposite, it’s the person who shook the jar.
As we look to the dire state of British prisons, we might ask a similar question. Those inside are serving time to protect us from their misdemeanours and so that they can reflect on their crimes.
However, if we are to drive down the numbers, we also need to ask this: who shook the jar – why are they there?
In an attempt to find out how old the story was, we did a date-restricted search for results published earlier than December 1 2020. In total, 17 results were returned — most published in late September and October 2020. On October 5 2020, a Reddit user asked if the premise of the parable was plausible (and did not mention Attenborough):
Allowing jar-shaking leaders in our churches, courtrooms, classrooms, and chambers should be criminal. Let’s live, lead, teach, serve and parent with a passion for loving one another. I know. What a preacher thing to say? But really, why is this so hard? Little kids playing together couldn’t care less what kind of ant you are. They don’t care if you are a right-wing ant or a moderate ant. They aren’t concerned about if you are a brown ant or a green ant. They do care if you play nicely. It’s a universal action…being nice.
He instigated and directed that we first love, then forgive, then love even more. And if we, who claim to be Followers of Jesus are spending more time shaking jars or griping about who shakes the jar, we missed the whole point, didn’t we? Maybe we are spending our time listening to and watching the jar shakers to the point that we don’t recognize the commonalities of all us like ants in the jar anymore?
We are all ants, living in a globe-shaped jar. Stop giving the jar shakers a voice. Give your head and heart to serving the fellow ants in the jar with grace, dignity, kindness, and good old-fashioned love. I think we’ll live in a far better jar.
The earliest version of the commentary we located was shared to iFunny on September 5 2020. A caption transcription once again spelled out the undertones of the parable, and the story was not attributed to David Attenborough:
If you can catch about 100 red fire ants that live in the southwestern desert and also about 100 of those large black ants that live there and drop them all into the same jar, not much will happen until you shake the jar vigorously and dump them out on the ground. The red ants will attack the black ants and the black ants will attack the red ants and they’ll devastate each other. The thing is, the red ants think the enemy is the black ants and the black ants think the enemy is the red ants and all those ants put together never do figure out that the real enemy is the guy who shook the jar.
(above text copied and pasted but most of us know the guy shaking the jar is the liberal media)
A treacly, widely-shared “ants in a jar, who shook the jar” parable was attributed to David Attenborough around April 2021, but circulated with no attribution starting around September 2020. The earliest iterations of the tale made its subtext far clearer, directly referencing the “liberal media” and “masks vs. no masks” in the phrasing. It’s unclear precisely where the attribution to David Attenborough got attached, but a share to the Facebook group “David Attenborough Fans” circulated as a screenshot and could be the culprit for the false attribution. In any event, the timeline of an absent attribution for the first wave of shares and the late entry of Attenborough as the author or speaker of the commentary indicated that Attenborough was not responsible for the 100 black ants/100 fire ants story.