Ant civilization in The Superorganism.

Ant civilization in The Superorganism.

Ant civilization in The Superorganism.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 1 2008 10:44 AM

Of Ants and Men

Compare the two civilizations, and who wins?

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson.

If you took a planet and a handful of genes, you could pose some great questions about human nature and then run experiments to answer them. Instead of asking how much altruism, cooperation, creativity, or any other human trait is hard-wired, you could adjust the wiring yourself. First, you would work out how tightly behaviors and abilities could be programmed into the genome. Then you would create many societies with starkly different predispositions and compare their progress. In one country, you might have a population with genetic sex differences that are so profound that males and females are different social castes. In another, you might loosen genetic control over sexual traits and liberate behavior from sexual identity; an elastic gender gap would prevail, and citizens would be highly responsive to cultural influences. How do the two fare? You could build a group whose social classes have a biological basis, with extreme physical and cognitive/mental differences between socioeconomic levels, and contrast them with a group that is much more physically homogenous. Who is happiest? Or create a highly aggressive, individualistic band of humans and pit them against superefficient drones who are biologically incapable of internecine conflict. Which civilization is more robust? Which colonizes other lands? Who lasts longest?

In lieu of another planet, consider the ant. In an advanced ant city, thousands of individuals work closely together to create a functioning colony in which there is a balance of cooperation and conflict. Some ant societies feature spectacular architecture and climate control. The most remarkable ant species have agriculture: They farm fungus and even domesticate other insects as livestock. In fact, at its height, ant civilization is remarkably like ours. A key contrast is that their society emerges from the hard-wired decision-making of thousands of efficient little biological robots, whereas ours is, at least partly, conscious and intentional. Despite this seemingly massive difference, it appears you can go a long way without a mind.

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In The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson survey the last 15 years of myrmecological research. Picking up where their Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants left off, The Superorganism is a completely wonderful book. It is packed with astonishing findings and beautiful illustrations, and, happily, it also contains enough information about ant civilization to set up a few ants-vs.-humans scenarios. Let us skip lightly over the fact that to compare ants and humans is to pit thousands of species against just one. Rather, let's start with the idea that we begin the contest evenly matched—at 6.6 billion humans and approximately 5 million billion ants, humans and ants have roughly the same biomass. What if a global disaster struck? Who would come out on top?

We won't be able to declare one species smarter or better—each is wildly successful in its own niche, and at any rate, that would make as much sense as saying one is better-looking than the other. Still, we can wonder about how robust life is at such extreme ends of the genes-mind spectrum. What if, for example, you hammered the Earth with a volcano or a big rock from space? Who would survive? Or think about that classic of speculative fiction—mass sterility. Imagine that both ants' and humans' biological clocks sputter and stop, and reproduction just doesn't work as it used to. Is life as we know it over? Perhaps a mysterious plague has moved unnoticed among us until one morning we awake and 70 percent of both populations has disappeared? Could civilization recover? Either one?

Ants in general have been around for more than 100 million years, and the most socially sophisticated species evolved 8 million to 12 million years ago. In that whole time span, the Earth has suffered many explosive events. The worst occurred 65 million years ago, when a meteor strike caused the end not just of the dinosaurs but of 75 percent of all species at the time. In terms of immediate global catastrophe and drastic long-term climate change, the next-most-awful event was a volcanic eruption 27 million years ago in what is now southwestern Colorado. As far as modern humans are concerned, two more important blasts occurred: a volcanic eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago and an exploding comet above North America 12,500 years ago that set the entire continent on fire. The Indonesian eruption almost wiped out the human species, and the meteor may have decimated the humans who lived on the continent at the time. Still, nothing on the scale of any of these explosions has occurred in the last 10,000 years as modern human civilization has gotten up and running. Essentially, we remain untested, while ants from the most primitive to the most social have survived all events. By default, ants must be declared the winner.

How have they coped with all the apocalyptic broiling? Ants are remarkably physically resilient. They live in virtually any habitat possible, and they can withstand radioactivity that would kill humans instantly. It must also help that they live mostly underground. They can easily retreat if the outside world gets too hot. Most importantly, ants are untroubled by the sophisticated decision-making apparatus that humans have. In the case of many ant species, the individual ant is going to make and remake the same small set of decisions every day, whether that day is the same as the one before or that day is the day a supervolcano erupts. Because of this, ants also deal efficiently with problems that might haunt us: If they stumble across a dead nest-mate, their first response is to pick the body up, take it outside, and literally throw it on the garbage heap.

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In The Children of Men, P.D. James vividly imagined a world that was suddenly struck by infertility. Men and women are still able to go through the motions of reproduction, but babies do not result. It's a straightforward end-of-the-world problem, and even though many scientists are now actively engaged in finessing human cloning, we aren't there yet. Until then, global infertility would mean curtains for us. Ants might struggle on a little longer. When a virgin queen leafcutter ant leaves her birth colony, she has an afternoon's dalliance with a number of males and then goes on to found a civilization of her own. Even though the odds are against her success (in one study, 12 of 13,300 new colonies made it to the three-month-mark), she may go on to produce hundreds of millions of offspring. All of this follows from her one big day out. Ant queens hang onto millions of male sperm cells and can use them for up to 10 years, long after the father has died. So even if sex no longer produced offspring, any one ant civilization might continue to thrive. Ants win again, at least for the short term.

The ant queen is queen of reproduction only. Once she gets her society going, she doesn't in any sense rule over her subjects. In fact, though it looks highly stratified (think class-obsessed Victorian England or the Indian caste system) as well as highly productive, no one is in charge of leafcutter civilization. After joining a caste, each ant follows a simple set of algorithms in order to make decisions. Their concern is always what is in front of them—the piece of food, the foreign ant, the wilting fungus, the enticing pheromone cloud. Out of the accumulation of all these tiny decisions emerges "megalopolis" architecture and industry. Ants excavate tons of dirt, going meters underground to create thousands of compartments. In many compartments, they tend fungus gardens, protecting their crop against disease and theft as carefully as any human farmer. Near their nests, they herd sap-feeding insects like cattle and harvest their sugar-rich droppings. No one ant plans this—or even thinks about it. Instead, the accumulation of their many small, quick decisions builds what Holldobler and Wilson call a superorganism, a smart animal made up of many differently smart animals. So real is the super-ant that it's subject to its own kind of evolutionary pressure, distinct from the pressure on any one ant.

Humans form superorganisms, too. Many enjoyable discoveries in cognitive science over the past few decades concern the way that a larger human intelligence can arise from the actions of many people. We know now that many individual decisions are made unconsciously, that even crowds make decisions, and that other weird phenomena exist in the collective mind like a language that is contained by a population of speakers, not the mind of any one speaker. Many evolutionary theorists also argue that human groups are subject to their own form of natural selection. But we are not the Borg—or ants, for that matter. Indeed, it is more or less the same thing to say that humans are individuals, humans can learn, and humans have minds. To be fair to ants, Holldobler and Wilson say ants possess primitive minds, making decisions about what to do next based on their experiences of what has happened before. Humans, however, extend the benefit of experience not just over their entire lifetimes but also back through the lifetimes of many human societies. Humans build knowledge outside the genome and learn in real time, which is why in the face of a global plague, humans might do better than ants.

If there is an avian-flu outbreak or an equivalent insect epidemic, like the one that's currently wiping out North America's honeybee population, humans will find ways to amplify their immunity rapidly. Assuming that after the initial hit, a decent portion of survivors are doctors, biologists, and engineers (and it's not all poets and bankers), we'll have the predictive and planning tools of epidemiology and other public-health aids as well as the lessons of medicine at our disposal. We may communicate remotely to keep infected people in quarantine, and we'll find some way to dispose of the ones who didn't make it. The problem for ants is that when civilization is hard-wired, civilians aren't very nimble—even if their civilization is particularly industrious and sophisticated. In contrast, humans are cognitive scavengers, pulling together ideas from other places and other times and even using other animals, like ants, to test their theories and design their responses. For once, ants lose and humans win.

Of course, life doesn't care which of us wins, as long as some of us do. While humans and ants are fundamentally different kinds of biological machines, both are designed to solve the same problem: staying alive. But a problem remains. It's been said that modern human civilization is itself an extinction event, causing up to 30 percent of all species to disappear by the middle of this century. If we ourselves go extinct, a huge burst in biodiversity will result. In contrast, if ants vanished, the effect on the biosphere would be catastrophic. Many plant species would die, as would entire habitats, like all of the rainforests. In short order, all the animals that depend on all of those plants would disappear, too. Ants may well be the most important animals on Earth. Which means that if the ants lose, we all lose.