As the planets self proclaimed most intelligent species, it’s a little unsettling to find our society compared to that of the social insects like ants, bees and wasps. And although there is almost no similarity between our species on an individual basis, it is kind of eerie that in some respects the way we humans live in our super cities has much in common with the super colonies of ants.
Ant super colonies may consist of millions of individuals and spread for vast distances, covering hundreds of kilometres. Sounds familiar? Researchers are fascinated by how ants maintain their networks and social structures in these situations. After all, humans and ants have little in common physically, and can’t be compared for in IQ. Intelligence is a human construct, but while individual ants are considered ‘limited’, as a colony they have proven to have a group intelligence capable of problem solving.
Ants don’t communicate by word of mouth, but they do communicate through chemical expression of pheromones and physical interactions with other ants. It is speculated by some that this form of communication works a bit like an ant Facebook, allowing them to send and receive messages (without blogs or images) across distances, from other ants they will never know or meet. Sounds weird, sure, but hey, humans seem to think it’s a brilliant idea good enough to invest in.
Social insects also have a highly defined social order and so researchers have focused on this in the hope of unlocking the secrets of human group behaviour. It is true that ants live in a very ordered society characteristic of humans. As a result, films such as Spielberg’s ANTZ can take the hierarchical aspects of ant life and humanize them in such a way we not only find them familiar, but also compelling.
With that perspective in mind, ants have been studied for answers on everything from predicting share market behaviour, to crowd movement, to electronic communication networks. But the surprising outcome of this research has been that instead of finding how ant colonies behave like human colonies, we now see that human colonies are slowly adopting some ant-like social behaviours.
So how can it be a sophisticated, sentient species like humans, has anything to learn from insects and why are we, errrgh, becoming more like them? Well until recent times, humans like most mammals lived in smaller communities where most individuals were in direct contact with the others in their clan. With the rise of super cities, the emphasis has moved away from the individual toward the wider community and the division of labour. Once the members of human settlements adopted specialist jobs or duties this allowed modern civilisation to form- where one person’s life is reliant upon someone they might never meet- like sanitation, sewerage and road maintenance workers.
The theory is that by understanding how ant colonies can communicate and maintain social order across such great population numbers and enormous distances we humans might benefit. But while this might result in better communications networks, we should remember that ants don’t have emotions, a sense of being, personality or even the concept of a ‘future’.
What we can really learn from ants is that like humans, they can only access finite resources to maintain and sustain their colony. Unlimited growth of any colony is impossible without infinite resources- and both ants and humans have proven that many times through history.
Watch FiST Chat 68: Humans Are Actually Ants for more on this topic.