Monday, May 15, 2017

Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One

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 your 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.

Some references

Ant colony as an emergent phenomenon

The brain of social insects shrinks in size

The social brain hypothesis, Dunbar

The social brain hypothesis doesn't apply to social  nsects

Evolution of Ants starting from early Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Article by Wilson and Holldobler

On the shrinking human brain.


  1. Fascinating the news about shrinking brains. Especially in the light of information technology.

    I notice a tremendous difference in physical skills between the older generation and the new ones: not just a question of strength, but also of coordination, of having the "feeling in one's fingers of what to do".

    The abolition of physical fatigue for most people has left only their fingers ticking: one by one, since the skill of typing with 10 fingers is almost gone, one reason we have declined from Bardi-size posts to 140 character tweets.

    However, with the IT revolution, the brain too starts to atrophy: people are no longer capable of doing very basic mathematical operations, for example.

    Minds are becoming as obsolete as muscles.

    I'm putting it in a Lamarckian way of course, but...

  2. Hi Professor Bardi - a very interesting post, thanks again! the ant on the Mobius strip problem. Perhaps one day you might enjoy reading the book 'The Soul of the White Ant' by Marais. and then that very interesting oddball Gurdjieff is reported to have said that the CURRENT tribes of ants on this droplet of ours were the result of civilizations of that time experimenting with their glandular systems...

    AI, well, if Gurdjieff's premise has any merit, that doesn't bode well for the clever monkeys of this particular go around. we are definitely too clever by half.

    1. Very interesting. I know of "The Soul of the White Ant", although I haven't read it. By Gurdjieff is new for me. Do you have a link or a reference?

    2. I meant "But Gurdjeff is new for me"

  3. How does this not conflit with the "Flynn effect" ?

    (The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.)

    I would be very carefull with either assumption about human intelligence in general and would refrain from any simple explanation.

    I would rather say, that the negative feedback loop as a leverage point to social behaviour as invented by the "limits to growth" group is not about a collective consciousness, but a collective conscience.

    I also think that there once might have been a collective conscience, but that we europeans got rid of that 200 vears ago because it prevented us from making money by doing things like selling people as a property.

    I dont think we ever got that conscience back. We egotistically exploit everybody else, feel no remorse if we cause death and suffering in the world and keep bragging about how great we are.

    In short western industrial societies behave like a psychopath as a collective.

    "Psychopathy: is defined as a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits." (Wikipedia)

    Arthur Miller: ‘Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.’

    1. I haven't invented the idea of a shrinking human intelligence: I cite some references about it. Then, I admit that I can't prove that the social networks are dumbing people down - but it seems to me perfectly consistent with what I see happening around me!

    2. Alien

      Please consult the account by Josephus of what the Romans did when they captured Jerusalem: how they divided up their captives, categorized them and sold them off/killed them/left them to starve. It's one of the clearest accounts from Antiquity of the enslavement process.

      This form of behaviour, I suggest, has an even earlier origin than the Industrial Revolution....

      What characterizes the last 200 years is the development of supposedly objective theories to support it.

      Humans have always used other humans as tools, in densely populated societies.

    3. I aggree. What we have in common with Rome (and other empires like the chinese) is the invention of bureaucracy. There seems to be no tool better suited to make a collective cause death, suffering and destruction on a large scale, than bureaucracy. The holocaust was a made possible by a bureaucratic monster. Somehow this ant-like organisation of collectives by a set of oversimplified rules and a hierarchical stratification dehumanizes us and inhibits our collective thinking, empathy and common sense. David Graeber calls that "Structural Stupidity".

      We function best, in all regards, not as ant-hives but as small democratic collectives of up to 20 people, tribes if you will, that constantly renegotiate the "rules" of their tribal structure.

      "The experience of bureaucratic incompetence, confusion, and its ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to behave outright foolishly, opens up a series of questions about the nature of power or, more specifically, structural violence. The unique qualities of violence as a form of action means that human relations ultimately founded on violence create lopsided structures of the imagination, where the responsibility to do the interpretive labor required to allow the powerful to operate oblivious to much of what is going on around them, falls on the powerless, who thus tend to empathize with the powerful far more than the powerful do with them. The bureaucratic imposition of simple categorical schemes on the world is a way of managing the fundamental stupidity of such situations." David Graeber

    4. @Alien Observer

      "The experience of bureaucratic incompetence, confusion, and its ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to behave outright foolishly"

      Wonderful quote, and I also agree empirically with what you say about "up to 20 people" and the idea of constantly "renegotiating" their tribal structure.

      However, problems arise when we get out of our computers - or our tiny collective of like-minded intellectuals - and start to act in the real world.

      We run a Commons in Florence, where every day we have to coordinate and work with some 200 people.

      One tiny example: we try to promote recycling, giving, sharing. So we organize markets where parents bring and take clothes other children have grown out of.

      Sounds nice and ecological...

      Every time, we bring five bags of used clothes, and go away with six.

      Because rubbish is the main product of capitalist civilization, and people have tiny houses and the poorer they are, the less they know where to put what they have.

      So we have just decided to become nasty bureaucrats about this too: we are going to put up a notice saying, "we accept used clothes only on Friday between 5 and 7 pm".

      I don't know if this means we are becoming a bureaucracy too... it is something we can renegotiate at any time, because behind the 200 people in the Commons, the deciding tribe is probably not bigger than the 20 you mentioned.

  4. I always appreciate your posts (I especially like the modelling you are doing).
    The hopium ending doesn't match either the content or the reality. I guess it's a generational thing, you grew up when things were getting better so it's​ a built in assumption.
    Have you read David Cohen's Flatland theory of human consciousness (decline of the empire blog)?

  5. the human colony can be compared to an ant colony only at a cellular level

    We are comprised of millions of cells, each functioning to perform specific tasks so that the colony as a whole (the body) can survive and thrive.

    In the course of doing that, cells die and are disposed of, they are of no concern to the colony as a whole. Cells concern themselves with only the task they are required to perform, they have no awareness beyond that.

    Ant colonies are exactly the same, ants perform specific duties and no other so that the colony itself can survive., when they die, they are replaced, just as cells in our bodies are replaced

    1. Yes. And the human colony can be transformed into the same kind of entity


    2. >Ant colonies are exactly the same, ants perform specific duties and no other so that the colony itself can survive

      Like soldier 'ant' humans... like humans in manufacturing .. like humans in academia ....seems like the ant colony analogy is excellent.

      Superb article !

  6. Ugo, could a Democratic victory in the 2018 midterms be a step toward making the anthill great again?

    1. This could be the final battle!

    2. The tide's coming, Ugo. Keep an eye on the Montana and Georgia special elections!

    3. Worker ants of the world, unite!

    4. Reproductive constraint. Now that's a very good idea!

  7. Prof.Bardi, have you ever read George Mobus -The Question Everything blog - I believe it would be of interest to you regarding this issue?

    1. Of course I did. George is a good friend of mine!

    2. Too bad that he doesn't publish more often!

  8. The process of selection for social dumbing down involves cummulative stages. The first is that the pressures of natural selection no longer work by favourable survival of individuals that can generally do everything and learn to survive in a natural wild that no longer exists. Brain complexity and learning curves are steep, reproduction and selection have to work hard to keep up standards. The second is the selection of individuals that automatically cooperate, because they have same language, tribal markers, and emotional sets as a coherent group. This involves simplification and imprinting in childhood, older kinds of learning, lower standards, more specialization, less to learn. The processes work first on the cultural memes, until we no longer have to learn what once was necessary. Selection then favours those who don't physical investment in brain complexity that they no longer need.
    Since we are so individually and socially clever at the same time, we unbalance nature so that earth becomes so much harsher, and competitive for survival, until carry-capacity for our numbers dwindles, density falls, and once again the pressures for survival will select the hardy individuals, for all our social melding also depends heavily on high energy technology and complex materials, which does not seem sustainable in future resource depleted and marginal world of severe climate change.

    1. Yin and Yang all over again...

  9. Maybe we should not live like ants? Or we can develop miniaturization technology!

  10. You would think Ugo will be aware of Genetic entropy and the degradation of the human genome. Every new generation received 100 genetics defect from the previous generation. This is a well know fact that human are losing physical fitness and intelligence because of genetic entropy. You will think that a man like you will be aware of that.

  11. There is a fragment no. 33 from Greek philosopher Heraclitus (The Obscure) of Ephesus which says: "Even following one's will is the law." (This is my translation from Serbian language. It's translation of a translation. I do not know Old-Greek language.) With tyrants there is 50% chance of success.

    May I quote Finish eco-fascist Penti Linkola who said that there is no tyrant so stupid as the parliament of a country. We have too much confidence in group decisions. I admit that I am some kind of Serbian eco-fascist.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)