Monday, May 11, 2009

Anthropomorphizing Ants

This is a long post, beware.

Back in February, Andrew linked to a summary of E.O. Wilson's new book The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies written for the New York Book Review by Tim Flannery. In it, the book describes a species of Central American fire ants who, upon reaching the beaches of the United States, stopped their normal behavior of small, isolated colonies with one or a few queens, and changed behavior:
In their native land fire ants form discrete colonies, with just one or a few queen ants at the center of each. This is how most ants live, but something very strange happened to the fire ants soon after they reached the United States. They gave up founding colonies by the traditional method of sending off flights of virgin queens, and instead began producing many small queens, which spread the colony rather in the way an amoeba spreads, by establishing extensions of the original body. Astonishingly, at the same time the ants ceased to defend colony boundaries against other fire ants. As Hölldobler and Wilson put it, "With territorial boundaries erased, local populations now coalesce into a single sheet of intercompatible ants spread across the inhabited landscape." This remarkable shift was caused by a change in the frequency of a single gene.
Is it possible, The Superorganism left me wondering, that the invention of the Internet is leading to a similar social evolution of our own species?

Andrew asks:
But who gets to be the queen?

What Andrew is implying is the old phrase "It's good to be king." But what we all miss is that although we see many parallels of ant behavior in human society, we are usually amiss when we see human society in ant behavior. The whole idea of a superorganism is not a pyrimid, nor is it any sort of hierarchy where one group becomes the "legs" another the "stomach" and another the "brain."

Simply, superorganisms behave like flocks of birds or schools of fish: no single entity makes group decisions. The decisions are hard-wired into the genes, and the queen, just like the soldier, the gatherer, and the worker, has a job to do...that she mindlessly performs. Her job may be more "glorious" in that we humans value sex so the only individual in the ant society that gets laid we tend to imbibe with our own sexual prejudice, but the truth of the matter is outside of the human species, sex is by and large not a recreational activity. Queen ants mate once, the male dies, she carries his sperm to fertilize millions (or even billions) of eggs, and then secretes them in regular fashion as she lays there in the nest until her death, at which point she is disassembled and fed to other ants. Glorifying her with thoughts like "who gets to be Queen?" is like asking of a newspaper business "who gets to be the printing press?" or asking of a steel mill "who gets to be the oven?" The queen's job is unique in its solitude; there are only a dozen or two dozen queens in even the largest ant super-colony. But it is not unique in that she has other duties beyond the simple task of producing offspring as rapidly as she can, for as long as she can.

She will never see the light of day, save for the single mating flight she and a male ant shared at the beginning of her adulthood. And many ant colonies skip that part and just force a male drone and female pre-queen together, they mate, and the now-fertilized queen has her wings (and in some cases her legs) torn off by workers so she cannot escape. In essence, she is a prisoner, the press-mold by which the superorganism survives.

In Star Trek terms, the Borg represented the hive mind and the superorganism so perfectly well. They acted as a single unit, sacrificed the individual thoughtlessly for the sake of the group, and had a single, emotionless, unbending will to survive and spread as quickly and as effectively as possible. Until...some writer decided it made good television to kidnap Picard and convert him into a Borg. "I am Locutus of Borg", Patrick Stewart murmured across the cosmos to the shocked Enterprise crew. Those of us that were Star Trek fans wondered if the entrance of a individual mind into the collective would cause the destruction of the Borg. "Surely," we thought, "the superorganism Borg cannot tolerate this individuality." We were wrong. Picard was rescued and the Star Trek universe suffered as the Borg continued on somehow undamaged.

But we were right! Later, different writers woke up to the reality we had so obviously seen, and wrote a series in which the Enterprise captures a Borg, teaches him what an individual conscience is, and then releases him back to the Borg, where the individual mind causes the Borg species to fracture into chaos. Perfect.

But then we get the movie "Star Trek: First Contact", and we're back to the human idea that somehow even a superorganism needs a leader, so you have that uber-creepy Borg Queen who wants to seduce Data and apparently was the reason Picard was captured in the first place. Apparently the Borg Queen wanted a boyfriend?

From a science standpoint, this makes no sense. The Borg do not reproduce sexually, the don't reproduce at all...they absorb other species into their own. They would not need a queen, nor would her sexual desires for a "king" make sense to the collective.

That is what is going on here with Andrew's comment "But who gets to be Queen?" He is wondering who is the leader of the superorganism, in this case the internet. The answer is that no one is. Every individual has its own tiny, pathetic little job, through which massive change is made. Just look at the explosive growth of Wikipedia. Sure, there is an administrative staff at Wikipedia...but they do not decide what articles will be added that day, nor are they responsible for the information put into the articles. They are simply part of a collaborative machine with no clear leader or direction. Wikipedia's purpose is not defined and redefined by a single individual, it simply "is" and exists for the sake of sharing knowledge. Individuals contribute their tiny bit of knowledge to it, in hopes that their little contribution will help Wikipedia as a whole, and increase it's total knowledge that can be extracted by other individuals elsewhere. Is wiki, not humanity, the superorganism?

Flannery sums up his argument with the thought that perhaps humanity is moving to a better, more sustainable place in the world, and if we ever became as collaborative as a superorganized ant colony, perhaps we could really achieve something. Tra la la.

This month comes the response of Dr. Jeffrey Dickemann, professor emeritus of anthropology. He argues:
But the human species is precisely not a superorganism: its Darwinian success is precisely due to that fact.
We are capable of survival and replication in extremely small single-family units, on the one hand, and enormously large conurbations on the other. This "accordion" capacity allows us to colonize, and recolonize, waste spaces but to endure, as well, the enormous crowding of supercities. Competition, not only between states but between cities, communities, and families, at all levels of social organization, distinguishes us (and other mammals) from the ants, who have laid aside competition at these lower levels in favor of unquestioning collaboration.

To this, I must agree. Human history, and the advancement of our species, is typically not due to collaborative efforts, but (sadly) rather due to competition and conflict. From the ruins of wars we collaborate and do great things...however, we harnessed the atom to destroy life, not to generate power.

Ant supercolonies also show us what we cannot accept as a species: every one has a place. Ants that are born to the lower castes are absolutely stuck there, and live their lives there without fail. Perhaps a better representation of a human supercolony would be in the pages of Orwell's 1984, where humans are "farmed" for each purpose in the society. Some are made smarter and taller for some jobs requiring brains...others are made dumber because the brains aren't needed for laborers and would only provide mental capacity for conflict.

Ants as a prophecy tool? Only to the secular. Most all religions value the interaction of the individual with God. As Christians we each go on our own journey to find God...we are individually baptized. We are told we each are loved by God. The sins of others do not damn us if we are penitent. The idea of a supercolony of humans would only work without that individuality that is professed by major religions. You cannot have a personal...anything...for the supercolony to succeed. And if you do show even the slightest thread of individualism...the colony must quickly dispatch of you for the sake of its own survival.

Update: More interesting thoughts here.


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