Posted by: Jim | November 9, 2006

Ants R Us

I must confess, I thought about this blog posting last weekend, but determined it would be wise to wait for the outcome of Tuesday’s election before writing and publishing it. To my pleasure, my theory was corroborated on Tuesday.

Today I’d like to talk about ants. Bear with the science lesson; I’m going somewhere with this.

Did you know that an individual ant does not have the brain capacity to build an anthill?  In fact, it doesn’t even have enough capacity to remember where its anthill is.  So how do they build an anthill? How do they repair it when part of it fails? They obviously do build and repair them. It’s impossible to really know what a little ant is thinking. But we can safely conclude that whatever it is–it’s a tiny part of the whole body of information required to build an anthill. Let me quote Jesse Rohwer from the first link, above:It is only through the interactions of a multitude of ants, no single one of which possesses an internal plan for the often complex design of the anthill, that such vast (relative to the size of each individual ant, at least) and intricate (arches, mazes of tunnels, and towers) structures are eventually built. The neuronal example of unforeseeable complexity arising from simple parallel agents is also fascinating. Hofstadter points out the difficulty of localizing higher cognitive processes due to the fact that any individual neuron may interact with thousands of others, which in turn interact with thousands of others, all in parallel, to produce complex mental behavior.”

So these ants run around, each one holding a single synapse of the entire brain. By leaving chemical trails and touching antennae, they form a single brain that is capable of maintaining higher thought.

I know what you’re thinking. Considering the ant, it is amazing what humans would be capable of–if only we had antennae.

But I have to compare this concept to earlier discussions on this very blog. Some folks concluded (perhaps correctly) that Americans are not smart enough to safely govern themselves. It was hard to argue against it only a few weeks ago. But if you consider the “hive mind” or “collective consciousness” afforded to us by networks of communication, much like the ant, a glimmer of hope begins to form.

In short, I’m theorizing that we’re smarter as a society than we are as individuals.

Now, if you actually utter that sentence out loud, it sounds preposterously stupid, especially coming from me–someone who touts that people go mad in crowds, and is a fan of McKay’s book, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.”

But I have to wonder … if humans are too dumb to safely govern themselves, how have we managed to limp toward progress as we have? Why weren’t we overcome by McCarthyism? Why isn’t alcohol still illegal after it was made illegal during prohibition? Why did we look back on Japanese internment with shame–so much that we publicly apologized for it?  Why are Blacks, Jews, Women, and so many other previously oppressed people now deemed our perfect equals?

Somehow, humans have an amazing ability to set themselves aright–even amid overwhelming popular opinion. I think it’s due to our ability to communicate with each other and eventually see through the bullshit that often arises out of the madness of the crowds.

We are like ants. Maybe most of us as individuals don’t have the sense to see the big picture, but the big picture is present in our collective consciousness. All we have to do is talk to each other, and the vague outline of the big picture eventually presents itself.



  1. i like your ant theory. it’s really why i vote at all.

    someone i love and respect spent a great deal of time last election convincing me that it didn’t matter who won; for one thing we’d be trading one set of crooks for another, and secondly, big money and special interests usually control the outcome.

    but i was spoon fed american history and patriotism as a child, and i am a hopeless romantic at heart, so i just have to believe that my little voice counts for something.

    with the ants it’s easy. each part of the ‘brain’ is geared toward the same goal; building the anthill.

    i just wonder when there’ll be enough of US with the same anthill in mind. i hope i’m around to witness it. 🙂

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