Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Ants, Traffic and the Lack of Individuality

A month or so ago some fellow Barbarians and myself were having a conversation about bees. We all got to realizing that you hardly ever hear about predators to bees, which eventually led the conversation to animals that pretty much only exist in colonies. (For the record, a quick Wikipedia search of course turned up bears as a bee predator. You’d think all those cartoons would have taught us that.)

Anyway, we basically ended up talking about how ants don’t really ever exist on their own. All their power comes from their ability to organize themselves in groups (perfectly illustrated by this video). Basically I got to thinking that the animal is the group, the individual ant is just a component, not unlike an arm or leg for us.

I mention all this because I was just reading an interview with a researcher who studied ant traffic. One paragraph in particular stood out: “For my paper I was working with Isca ants, and they carry food, like big leaves. The ants that carry food are slower; the ants who are behind have to adjust their speed to the loading ants. But it’s funny–and quite unexpected–they never try to overtake the loading ants, even if the loading ants were very slow. Because the loading ants are always given the right of way on the trail, if the others just stay behind the loading ants, they took the benefit of that too.” In other words, they always operate in the best interest of the group.

Now thinking of ants not as individuals, but rather as limbs of a larger being, that makes sense. They all work toward the optimization of the whole at all times (not unlike our own bodies who can redirect things to different places when needed). Not surprisingly, this makes me think about humans. What if we are just components of the larger culture?

I’m pretty sure an interesting connection could be drawn between this and what Susan Blackmore has to say in her TED Talk or Mark Earls talks about in Herd (which I really still need to read, sorry Mark). Unfortunately I’m on the train with a pretty crappy connection and having quite a bit of trouble thinking, so I’m going to put a stop to this post early. Feel free to add your two cents.

March 6, 2009