David Attenborough 'Ants in a Jar'

7 min read
fairly easy
A viral, ham-handed parable about "who shook the jar" of proverbial ants was attributed to David Attenborough.
Claim Naturalist David Attenborough likened debate of social issues to the shaking of ants in a jar.

Rating Misattributed


AdvertisementsIn 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":

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

– Etc. 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…
Kim LaCapria
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