Ants

Ant Encounters: Deborah Gordon

In this program, a Stanford professor talked about her research and discoveries about the ways that ants behave that are completely different from humans. She emphasized that she did not want to focus on the similarities between humans and ants, but rather to focus on the phenomena that ants exhibit that humans have not picked up on yet, especially the ability of ants to work cohesively in a completely chaotic and order less environment. The professor made sure to contradict the common misconception about ant colonies that the queen directs all activity to the worker ants. Instead, ants just interact through the recognition of hydrocarbons through their antennae, but do not communicate any kind of messages through these reactions.

What was most interesting to me about this presentation was that natural selection acts upon an entire colony as though it were a single organism even though it is really a population of ants comprising the queen, forager, patrolling, nest maintenance, and midden work ants. Natural selection chooses a particular colony as more successful and these colonies are the ones that have greater reproductive success. For example, colonies must strive to balance the need to conserve water from seeds and the need to compete for forage area with other colonies. Natural selection chose the trait of entire colonies as conserving forager ants to go out as being advantageous and leading to more reproductive success. While this is somewhat similar to natural selection among other animal populations that overlap in territory. it is different because the mutation that natural selection works on comes from an individual in the population while, in the ant population, it comes from the queen. However, the queen represents the entire population’s genetic code so really a mutation in the queen leads to a mutation in the whole colony.

Another cool thing I took from the presentation was that the pattern that ants follow to forage is similar to the design of the Internet. While ants have been following these stimuli for millions of years and creating this pattern to forage food, the Internet is regarded as huge human innovation. This brought to light the possibility that nature holds the answers to many of the problems our species face, and by looking for biological patterns, it is possible to find the solutions to previously insurmountable tasks not by focusing on human innovation but evolutionary innovation.

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