Image above: the 1998 movie “AntZ”. This post was inspired by a post by Antonio Turiel titled “Of Ants and Men” where he used the example of an ant to discuss the difficulties that humans have to perceive the real problems facing humankind today. Here, I examine again, a little more in depth, the same issue.
Imagine yourself as an ant. What would be your perception of the world? Mainly, it is other ants from the same colony. As an ant, you are nearly blind but you have an excellent sense of smell and most of you sensorial inputs are the pheromones you receive from your sister ants that then you transmit to other ants. This kind of feedback-based pheromone exchange may lead to remarkably complex behaviors. Yet, the colony has no structure that we could see as a brain. If we define “self-consciousness” as the capability of a creature to model itself, the colony doesn’t have this capability. It can react to external stimuli, and it can do that fast. But it can’t plan for the future. It is the same for single ants: for them, the colony is a set of smells; they don’t really perceive it.
Now, zoom back to your condition of a human being reading a blog post. What’s your perception of the world? You are probably smarter than the average ant, but, like an ant, your perception of the world is mainly shaped by the pairwise contacts you have with other human beings, members of the same colony. These stimuli are verbal, not olfactory, but the mechanism of transmission and retransmission is the same. Like an ant, you are continuously exposed to stimuli from the media and from social networks that you then retransmit to other humans. This often generates transient bursts of reinforcing feedbacks that may generate rapid, even violent, collective reactions on the part of the whole colony. But the human colony doesn’t have a brain, it can react to external stimuli but it can’t plan ahead. Those large human colonies called “states” don’t show an intelligent behavior; not more than ant colonies do. States explore their environment, compete for resources, occasionally fight each other, at times very destructively. But these are behaviors that ant colonies engage in as well.
Of course, single human beings have abilities that ants lack: they are self-conscious in the sense that they can model their environment and themselves. They even have specific brain structures dedicated to this purpose, such as the “mirror neurons” used to model the behavior of other humans. But all this doesn’t seem to affect the behavior of the colony. The sophisticated modeling capabilities of human brains seem to be used mainly to gain an advantage in playing the sexual competition game between individuals. Outside of this realm, most humans probably see their “country” mostly as a semantic entity created by simple messages related to defense and attack. They have no perception of the immense complexity of a giant human colony of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals.
Theoretically, however, the power of the human brain could be applied to the management of the colony. In history, we see the widespread attempt to place a single human being – that is, a single brain – in charge of the activity of the state. That sometimes leads to attempts of planning for the future of the whole colony, but it often backfires creating disasters. A single human brain cannot manage the immense complexity of a human state. Dictators, kings, emperors, and the like are normally just as clueless about the system they are supposed to manage as their subject. Maybe as clueless as the ants of an anthill.
Yet, something changed in recent times. We may see the appearance of “world modeling” in the 1970s as the serendipitous awakening of consciousness in the human colony. Digital computers made it possible to perform studies such as the 1972 “The Limits to Growth” that modeled society on the basis of quantitative data and projected the results to the future. It was the first time in history that society could really plan for the future. In particular, the models identified a phenomenon scarcely known before: it was called “overshoot”, the tendency of society to overexploit its resources and then collapse. The models could be used to plan ahead and avoid collapse.
But, as well known, these studies had little or no impact and the world’s human colonies continued their blind path toward collapse. This is probably understandable. The emergence of complex structures such as brains is driven by evolutionary competition. Humans developed their large brains as tools for inter-group sexual competition. But states or industrial companies compete by exploiting the available resources as fast as possible. They have no advantage in the capability of planning for the long term, especially when the results of the planning is that they should slow down the exploitation rate. Doing that would only give more chances to their competitors who don’t. So, the behavior of human colonies remains dictated by one very simple rule: grow as much as possible and don’t care about anything else.
It is the same for ants: eusocial ant colonies have been around for more than 50 million years. If anthills had benefitted from being self-conscious, there was plenty of time for natural selection to create that characteristic. Instead, it seems that the intelligence of both individual ants and of ant colonies is optimized for the survival of the anthill. There is evidence that social insects are less intelligent than their wild counterparts as a result of the colony taking over in many tasks that were once for the individual to deal with. The same phenomenon may be taking place in human colonies: human brains have been shrinking during the past tens of thousands of years. The trend may have been greatly accelerated in recent times by the development of social networks on the Internet.
In the end, it may well be that the evolution of the human species is leading it to develop a eusocial behavior similar to that of social insects such as ants or bees. That would possibly entice an overall reduction of individual intelligence, not completely compensated by an increase in societal intelligence. Eusocial human colonies would keep competing against each other for the available resources as they ar doing now. As a eusocial species, humans might be very successful, just as eusocial ants have been very successful in the insect world. But, on the whole, these eusocial entities would not be self-conscious and wouldn’t engage in long term planning
Yet, the future remains impossible to predict: humans are clever monkeys and you never know what they may be able to invent. There may be ways to make the human colony conscious and that would lead to a whole new spectrum of behaviors that, at present, we can only vaguely imagine. For the time being, it seems that we can’t do much more than blindly keep at the impossible task of making the anthill great again.
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it . He blogs at Cassandra’s Legacy where this article originally appeared.
Ant colony as an emergent phenomenon http://www.ulb.ac.be/sciences/use/publications/JLD/221.pdf
The brain of social insects shrinks in size http://serious-science.org/ant-wars-6652
The social brain hypothesis, Dunbar http://psych.colorado.edu/~tito/sp03/7536/Dunbar_1998.pdf
The social brain hypothesis doesn’t apply to social nsects http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/16/the-distributed-brainpower-of-social-insects/
Evolution of Ants starting from early Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Article by Wilson and Holldobler http://www.pnas.org/content/102/21/7411.full
On the shrinking human brain. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-have-our-brains-started-to-shrink/