14 March 2002
Ants are Small Things. It is hard to tell what they feel, think, say, or indeed if they do so at all. The tendency is to assume that they are simply minute automata; pre-programmed and pre-determined to act a certain way and therefore have no free will, no thought, no emotion.
We assume this because they are individually weak, tiny, non-threatening little specs on the oil painting of life. The kind if spec that an art restorer would meticulously paint over, guessing that some stubborn powder had at some point been spilt by an uncaring owner, before locking the painting away in an atmosphere-controlled guarded cabinet, never to be glanced upon by human eyes again.
We assume this because they are plain and silent, and only walk in single file. We all know walking in single file hides their numbers. This could be useful for the ant.
We assume this because they have no art, no pornographic waste of art, and no music. They have no enjoyment, no intoxication, no fun.
Individually, an ant would get lost on a plain piece of paper. Individual ants are single-minded goal-oriented beings. Their lives are solely driven by how much value they can add to the overall success of the whole group. Put a single ant in a room and it would probably die there. This behaviour adds to our assumption that they are stupid, mindless individuals, and yet we marvel at the sophistication of a whole collection. Put an entire ant farm in a room and watch them take it over and chase you out.
Collectively, ants can build bridges, dam rivers, and take down prey millions of times their size. It there a critical mass? Is it linear? If you place a larger number of ants together are they more likely to solve puzzles put before them. Seemingly, they are the opposite of humans. Put a large group of humans together and you get chaos, mob rule, anarchy. Put a large group of ants together and they win. We'd better hope they decide to take us on ship to ship, since they're way too small for our turbo-lasers. One-on-one, ants aren't up to much.
At least we're big.
With enough ants, would they form a utopian collective, or would the rich ones exploit the poor ones with a capitalist state? Would they factionalise and segment, or unify? Would they become more diverse or more uniform?
Think about linear collective ant intelligence. If we put enough ants in a room would they write plays, fly to the moon? The standard answer is no, they wouldn't because ants are singularly instinctual creatures. Genetically programmed, as a computer would be, by simple survival instincts, and the end result of a large number of simple creatures put together is a complex hierarchical society with advanced problem-solving capabilities.
But think about this. Why should a collection of ants perform appear collectively more intelligent than the sum of its individual parts? For this to happen, there must be some other force at work.
An ant will, without any hesitation, lay down its life for the good of the colony. An ant colony can bridge small rivers and crevices by forming bridges made up of their own bodies. If a bridge is required, enough ants will join together to form it, and each individual will die in place. The key to ants' collective success is their loyalty.
Two questions must be answered to explain this behaviour: First, how does the individual ant know what action will be of the greatest benefit to the colony. Second, why does the ant perform that act instead of acting to preserve its individual self?
It is very difficult to speculate about what type and method of communication ants use. It is documented that whenever two ants meet, they do communicate through the use of their antennae, and possibly also through the sense of smell. In the instant of two ants meeting, the spark of the mutual touch is a sudden sharing of two pieces of information. The next time either of those two ants meet any other ant, the information they pass on will be different. In the middle of a colony where the density of ants is very high, there are most likely thousands of ants whose sole purpose is the relaying of information - they never actually venture outside to the real world. What results is an immense organic network, relaying information very quickly, and which is not dependent on any central repository or command centre. That's how all the ants know what to do when and to whom.
It is even harder to speculate about the decision-making process within one ant. There is clearly some sort of survival instinct in an individual ant. Try to stamp on one, and it will run away. In order to give up its life for the good of the colony, this must override the survival instinct. There are ways this can happen, but I don't think you'll like them:
Religion. Ants may have some kind of religion that makes those that sacrifice themselves for the colony are worshipped as martyrs. The decision to die for the sake of the bridge would then be based on how many virgins you're promised in the next world.
Deception. The colony may lie. Rumours could fly around the colony about how great it would be if you go out to the end of the incomplete bridge, and stay there until you starve to death. Since ant's don't have much in the way of facial expression, it would be hard to deny that the hundreds already there didn't go in a fit a pure orgasmic ecstasy.
Coercion. The ant-bridge martyrs may have had a family back home at the farm which was being held to ransom. Messages could fly across the network saying if you don't get yo' segmented ass out on to that bridge, you can masticate goodbye to mummy and daddy. Or something along those lines.
Patriotism. The colony is great in its purest form. A bit like religion basically, except that patriotism does not promise you everlasting peace in the afterlife. Just that some people will shoot some guns and play the bugle at your funeral.
Whatever it is they do, it works.