Is there a “purpose” to the complex structure of ant colonies? Do ants make “choices” when they are constructing these colonies? When I begin to think about “human choice,” I first need to get “ant choice” straight in my head. So, here we go…
The human mind has a hard time grasping how a colony of ants, each with extremely limited “brain function,” can build large, structurally-sound and strangely-beautiful underground structures in which to live and breed. Likewise, bees and termites create homes with complexity that strains our capability to explain.
Biological research and computer simulations have demonstrated that ants have as few as three simple, probabilistic “decision rules” about what to do with each grain of sand they encounter when building a shelter. When you add up many thousands of “decision-maker” worker ants in the colony, each “doing its own thing,” the end result is one of these structures.  The more you study these structures, the more it looks like these very basic decision rules have somehow acted together to form a collective “intelligence” in creating the structure that best ensures their survival as a colony, and thus as a species.
Emergence is the term used to describe this “complexity out of simplicity” phenomenon. I prefer to call this case “probabilistic emergence,” because we can demonstrate how the ant colony gets built with some pretty basic math and some skills at computer simulation programming on our part. This is to differentiate it from what I call “speculative emergence,” where the concept is too often taken to extremes that get uncomfortably close to asserting supernatural causes.
You might perhaps get uncomfortable in attributing the word “choice” to the decision rules that ants perform. And if so, you likely even more get “antsy” when words like “intelligence” are used to describe the functioning colony as a whole. These words, used in this manner, begin to encroach on aspects of life that we want to consider to be uniquely “human.”
And yet, when we probe deeper into many human “choices,” such as the example of choosing between fruit and cake I discussed in a recent post, our perception of what human “choice” really is gets called into question. How much of it is probability, or even biologically pre-determined? I have had the experience, and perhaps you have as well, of driving in my car and suddenly realizing that I have no memory of the last several miles of driving. Was I “choosing” to drive that car during that memory-blanked period?
This is another reason why I prefer the word “volition” over “choice,” as the former is more easily transformed into a biology discussion, while the second quickly gets political and theological. My nerve cells, mostly in my brain, seem to be initiating different bodily actions based on some sort of “decision criteria.” The farther I drill down into the chemistry, the more the ant’s decision processes and mine begin to look biologically similar, or at least analogous. The “something happening” here I would call “volition,” regardless of the size of the brain.
Likewise the aggregation of the ant colony. Can we call this “collective intelligence”? If up to 100,000 ants can collectively build something very complex, what can an estimated 86 billion human brain neurons, each of limited functionality, accomplish in its own “colony” in our heads?  Do you see this as an analogous example of emergence, or do you still need to assume something supernatural that distinguishes human intelligence from ant colony-building?
My view is that our ‘language errors” work simultaneously in two directions. We often “anthropomorphize” life forms much more basic than us, ascribing “human” nouns and verbs to their biological processes. At the same time, we are also quick to ascribe all human volition to some species-unique “special power,” when a lot of it is basic biology. The reality is that human language “comes from somewhere,” and we can’t help but throw 10,000 years of culture, religion and history into our speech, no matter how hard we try to be “objective.”
Discoveries like this “math of ants” often threaten religious communities, because they mess with some longstanding theologies of “Divine Purpose.” But this is just the math of “reality,” so let me suggest that what we appear to be missing here is a “Theology of Reality.”
The “purpose” of the ants in colony-building is to get the colony to survive from today (let’s call today “time t”) until tomorrow (which we can call “time t+1“). The colonies that probabilistically end up with a slightly better structure have incrementally better odds of making it from time t+1 to time t+2. Over millions of “ant years,” these incremental probabilities show up in the genetic makeup of the species.
But it is likely purpose without intention. The ants do not so much intend to get to time t+1. They just do what ants do. Rather, the colonies that don’t make it to time t+1 simply won’t be around to make it to time t+2 either in order to write “ant history.” As the old saying goes, “If your parents didn’t have any children, then you won’t either.” Over billions of years of “Universe Time” and trillions of ants (and lots of “ant sex” along the way creating the “t+1” colonies), complex ant colonies with high shelter-building capabilities emerge, victors in the probability lottery of life.
Perhaps the “purpose of humankind” is to build a home on our planet capable of making it to our own “time t+1”. What are the odds?
- Singer, Emily. “Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules” Quanta Magazine. 9 Apr. 2014.
- Ant colony photo: Wikipedia Commons
- Cherry, Kendra. “How Many Neurons Are in the Brain?” Verywell Mind, 30 Mar. 2017.