Deborah M. Gordon, Department of Biology, Stanford University
Systems without central control are ubiquitous in nature. The activities of brains, such as thinking, remembering and speaking, are the outcome of countless electrical interactions among cells. Nothing in the brain tells the rest of it to think or remember. I study ants because I am interested in how collective outcomes arise from interactions among individuals, and how collective behaviour is tuned to changing environments.
There are more than 14,000 species of ants, which all live in colonies consisting of one or more reproductive females, and many sterile workers, which are the ants that you see walking around. Although the reproductive females are called “queens”, they have no power or political authority. One ant never directs the behaviour of another or tells it what to do. Ant colonies manage to collect food, build and maintain nests, rear the young, and deal with neighbouring colonies – all without a plan.
The collective behaviour of colonies is produced by a dynamical network of simple interactions among ants. In most ant species, the ants can barely see. They operate mostly by smell. As an ant moves around it briefly contacts other ants with its antennae, or it may contact a short-lived patch of a volatile chemical recently left behind by another ant. Ants smell with their antennae, and when one ant touches another with its antennae, it assesses whether the other ant is a nestmate, and sometimes what task the other ant has been performing. The ant uses its recent experience of chemical interactions to decide what to do next. In the aggregate, these simple interactions create a constantly shifting network that regulates the behaviour of the colony.
The process that generates simple interactions from colony behavior is what computer scientists call a distributed algorithm. No single unit, such as an ant or a router in a data network, knows what all the others are doing and tells them what to do. Instead, interactions between each unit and its local connections add up to the desired outcome.
The distributed processes that regulate the collective behaviour of ants are tuned to environmental conditions. For example, harvester ants in the desert face high operating costs, and their behaviour is regulated by feedback that limits activity unless it is necessary. A colony must spend water to get water. The ants get water by metabolizing the fats in the seeds they eat. A forager out in the desert sun loses water while out searching for food. Colonies manage this tradeoff by a simple form of feedback. An outgoing forager does not leave the nest until it meets enough returning foragers with seeds. This makes sense because each forager searches until it finds food. Thus the more food is available, the more quickly they find it and return to the nest, stimulating more foragers to go out to search. When food is not available, foraging activity decreases. A long-term study of a population of colonies shows that the colonies that conserve water in dry conditions by staying inside are more successful in producing offspring colonies.
By contrast, another species called “turtle ants”, living in the trees of a tropical forest in Mexico, regulate their behaviour very differently. The turtle ants create a highway system of trails that links different nests and food sources. Operating costs are low because it is humid in the tropical forest, but competition from other species is high. These ants interact using trail pheromones, laying down a chemical trail everywhere they go. An ant tends to follow another and this simple interaction keeps the stream of ants going, except when it is deterred by encounters with other species. In conditions of low operating costs, interactions create feedback that makes ongoing activity the default state, and uses negative feedback to inhibit activity. Thus this is the opposite of the system for desert ants that require positive feedback to initiate activity.
What can we learn from ants about human society? Ants have been used throughout history as examples of obedience and industry. In Greek mythology, Zeus changes the ants of Thessaly into men, creating an army of soldiers, who would become famous as the Myrmidons ready to die for Achilles (from myrmex – μύρμηξ – ant). In the Bible (Proverbs 4:4), we are told to “Look to the ant” who harvests grain in the summer to save for the winter. But ants are not acting out of obedience, and they are not especially industrious; in fact, many ants just hang around in the nest doing nothing.
Ants and humans are very different. Power and identity are crucial to human social behaviour, and absent in ants. Ants do not have relations with other ants as individuals. As an ant assesses its recent interactions with others, it does not matter whether it met ant number 522 or ant number 677. Even more fundamental, an ant does not act in response to any assessment of what needs to be done.
However, we may be able to learn from ants about the behaviour of very large dynamical networks by focussing on the pattern or structure of interactions rather than the content. While we care about what our emails say, the ants care only about how often they get them. It is clear that many human social processes operate without central control. For instance, we see all around us the effects of climate change driven by many different social processes that are based on the use of fossil fuel. No central authority decided to pump carbon into the atmosphere, but the CO2 levels are the result of human activity. Another obvious example is the internet, a huge dynamical network of local interactions in the form of email messages and visits to websites. The role of social media in the recent US election reflects how the gap between different networks can produce completely disparate views of what is happening and why.
The most useful insights may come from considering how the dynamics of distributed algorithms evolve in relation to changing conditions. The correspondences between the regulation of collective behaviour and the changing conditions in which it operates might provide insight, and even inspire thinking about policy, in human social systems. For ants or neurons, the network has no content. Studying natural systems can show us how the rhythm of local interactions creates patterns in the behaviour and development of large groups, and how such feedback evolves in response to a changing world.
Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized Deborah M. Gordon