Ant Encounters

Ants are interesting creatures. Deborah Gordon (unfortunately of no relation to me) began her talk by debunking a few crucial common misconceptions about ants, how they operate their hill, and how they live their lives. It is a common belief that in a given ant hill, the queen is the monarch, and there are a number of jobs to be done that only certain ants are able to do. For example, it is thought that foragers are only foragers, patrollers are only patrollers, and nest maintenance workers are only nest maintenance workers. These things are not true. In a given ant hill, except for the the queen, no ant is any different than any other ant. Almost every single ant is a fertile female (the males die soon after mating). And these ants can switch from one job to another job depending on where more work is needed. They go where they need to go and do what they need to do to maintain the overall wellness of the hill. The queen is not a ruler. The queen is the only ant to give birth in a nest, but the queen does not tell any ants what to do. The ants know what to do and do it, they are not forced to do it.

Gordon and her colleagues spent a lot of time tracking anthills year by year by year, creating a census of their numbers, locations, populations, and lineages. As a sidenote, the thought of counting anthills and ant populations in a given area is hilarious and horrible. She compiled these massive collections of data and analyzed them. She found a couple of really interesting things. I don’t really understand what those things are but grossly oversimplified, ant movement is near identical to TCP, the algorithm used by computers to send information over the internet; and ant interactions are near identical to the way in which neurons interact within the brain.

The thing is, ants don’t know they’re acting by these algorithms and patterns. They don’t really know anything. The craziest thing about ants is that they just do. No one tells them where they need to be, but still they end up there. By smelling each other, somehow they just do what needs to be done. This is hive mentality. It’s almost like they all act as a few thousand bodies to one mind. They are able to do such fantastic incredible things basically without communication. I don’t know, it’s really hard for me to comprehend how they do it.

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