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Sexless, Striving, and Ten Billion Strong
October 24, 2010 1:29 PM   Subscribe

E.O Wilson: Ants are a lot like us. Deborah Gordon: No, ants are like ants.
posted by The Whelk (35 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is exactly the sort of thing that a whelk capable of using a computer keyboard would want to distract the rest of humanity with. WHAT IS YOUR GAME, SIR?
posted by ardgedee at 1:47 PM on October 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


Ants are both a warning to humans on the perils of specialization and corporate-style systems, and an example to humans of what's possible when they set aside their egos and work for the good of the whole. Yes, you can have it both ways when comparing humans to ants.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:57 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


well at least both of them are qualified to argue this intelligently. I hadn't heard of Gordon previously, which always makes one say "well just who is this person, are they actually related to the field?" but looking online I she she very much is. Which is good. I very much respect Wilson and it looks like Gordon has the chops to dispute him, which is also good.

I only say this because of today's over-glut of people willing to express opinions despite knowing jack all about the topic-at-hand, witness the climate change "debate", the evolution "debate" and so on.
posted by edgeways at 1:59 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Thanks ants...th- oh, never mind.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:01 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gordon's article is a distillation of the first chapter of her book about ants.
posted by Nomyte at 2:02 PM on October 24, 2010


Dear Intelligent Life Layout Designer Who Decided It Was A Good Idea To Have A Picture Of E.O. Wilson Made Of/Crawling With Ants And Also Have Large Photos Of Ants In The Margins,

Go fuck yourself. Seriously.

Sincerely,

AGH THERE ARE FUCKING ANTS EVERYWHERE
posted by griphus at 2:04 PM on October 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


argh I am right in the middle of reading Anthill, ant lady.
posted by elizardbits at 2:19 PM on October 24, 2010


Ants are not "like" ants, they "are" ants. English, MF.
posted by Aquaman at 2:25 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


It Was A Good Idea To Have A Picture Of E.O. Wilson Made Of/Crawling With Ants

THAT is how the ant overlords will make their play...
People, made of ants, but who think that they're real!
replicANTS.

He's trying to warn us.
posted by Casimir at 2:26 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Gordon: A real ant colony is not a society of scheming, self-sacrificing individuals. It is more like an office that communicates by meaningless text messaging in which each worker’s task is determined by how many messages she just received. The colony has no central purpose. Each ant responds to the rate of her brief encounters with other ants and has no sense of the condition or the goals of the whole colony.

Sounds like us to me.
posted by escabeche at 2:52 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Dear Intelligent Life Layout Designer Who Decided It Was A Good Idea To Have A Picture Of E.O. Wilson Made Of/Crawling With Ants And Also Have Large Photos Of Ants In The Margins

I took E.O. Wilson's course in college and once went to his office hours. There was, indeed, an ant crawling on him. He didn't mention it and neither did I. It walked straight up his lapel and onto his shoulder. I'm pretty sure it was headed to his ear to bring him a message.
posted by escabeche at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2010 [29 favorites]


“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” - Lewis Thomas
posted by rough ashlar at 3:07 PM on October 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


escabeche: "I took E.O. Wilson's course in college and once went to his office hours. There was, indeed, an ant crawling on him. He didn't mention it and neither did I. It walked straight up his lapel and onto his shoulder. I'm pretty sure it was headed to his ear to bring him a message."

I was. It wasn't important, though. You could've interrupted.
posted by workerant at 3:09 PM on October 24, 2010 [23 favorites]


Gordon never once sees fit to justify her belief that there is some central control implicated in the structuring of human behavior. This is brain fetishism gone mad!
posted by stonepharisee at 3:10 PM on October 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Don't brain cells work like ants? Cells react based on quantity/types of input, as do individual ants.

My brain now feels itchy.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


"If all of humanity were to disappear, the remainder of life would spring back and flourish. The mass extinctions now under way would cease, the damaged ecosystems heal and expand outward. If all the ants somehow disappeared, the effect would be exactly the opposite, and catastrophic. Species extinction would increase even more over the present rate, and the land ecosystems would shrivel more rapidly as the considerable services provided by these insects were pulled away."

From the excellent book Journey To The Ants by Bert Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson (the introductory version of their Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece: The Ants).
posted by fairmettle at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ants are not "like" ants, they "are" ants. English, MF.

I'm certain that truth conditionally, the semantics of 'like' are such that:

∀x∀y[(x=y)➔like(x,y)]

You might claim that The Whelk's usage violates the Maxim of Quantity, but I find it felicitous given that it's an echo context. Linguistics, MF.

Carry on, ant people...
posted by tractorfeed at 4:18 PM on October 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


Ants, like a few other things, conceptually scare the crap out of me. I watch them, I think about all they do, and how alien they are as life that is so organized, and I really cannot help feeling the urge to go dump boiling water on every ant hill I can find. It feels... like self preservation? I don't know.

They are so like us in what they do, but so fundamentally alien in how they do it that it seems to trip some societal uncanny valley switch in my head.
posted by strixus at 4:21 PM on October 24, 2010


There was, indeed, an ant crawling on him.

You should have picked it off him and squashed it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:36 PM on October 24, 2010


Ants are both a warning to humans on the perils of specialization and corporate-style systems ALL institutions, including corporations, governments, and religions...

FTFY.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:42 PM on October 24, 2010


I think that most comparisons between people and ants aren't that interesting. I don't think that ant societies have much to tell us about socialism or totalitarianism (or vice versa).

What I do think ants can teach us is how to use our bodies creatively. For example:

Trophallaxis - Ants share food by mouth as a means of communication. Since ants lick themselves all the time, and since they share food by mouth, in a very real sense they can taste the state of the colony on their breath.

Weaver ants use their larvae as living glue sticks to connect leaves together during nest building. Most ant larvae create silk which is used to make a cocoon for protection as they change into adult form. However the weaver ant larvae can pupate without silk.

Doorkeeper ants grow enormous heads which they use to stop up nest entrances. When an ant wants to gain entry to the nest the doorkeeper will smell them. If they have the nest scent, they are let in. Otherwise the doorkeeper won't let the stranger in.

Honeypot ants use their bodies as food storage containers. As they are fed, their abdomens inflate with food until they are so large that they can't leave the nest. When food is scarce other ants can ask the honeypot ants for some food.

There are many other amazing examples of how ants find ways to adapt their bodies to the tasks at hand with ingenuity and flair.
posted by amosl at 5:39 PM on October 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's a matter of interpretation.
posted by ovvl at 6:19 PM on October 24, 2010


Do you want ants? Because that's how you get ants!
posted by furtive at 7:07 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Contrary to another of our beloved myths about ants, told by Aesop, Homer, and the writer of Proverbs 6:6, many ants don’t work very hard. In a large harvester-ant colony, about a third of the ants at any time are hanging around doing nothing.

Sounds about right. Barring for timezone population imbalances, I'd say about a third of humanity is asleep at any point in time.
posted by pwnguin at 8:02 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Only recently have I learned about anting.

Crows sometimes sprawl out around the mounds of acid-producing ants. This craziness, or "anting," is a crow's version of an insecticide application. Anting crows grab ants with their beak, crush them, and wipe the natural oils across the underside of their wing feathers. Formic acide and pungent anal fluids squeezed from ants ahve insecticidal properties that may drive unwanted parasites from the bearer's body. During anting, live ants may also crawl on crows and actually eat some of the tiny troublesome creatures out of a beak's reach. [...]


In the Company of Crows and Ravens
posted by bleary at 8:48 PM on October 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, pwnguin has it! WAKE UP...uh, ant....people....

Creeple?
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:57 PM on October 24, 2010


Wake up ants.

Wants.
posted by The Whelk at 9:19 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just drowned a thousand or so ants with my garden hose.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:52 PM on October 24, 2010


I have heard of 'anting' before. Other birds 'ant'. It used to be no one knew why birds do this. I can smell when there are a lot of ants in a house. They smell sort of like Scotch (tm) tape.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:58 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regardless as to whether they're "like" us or not, I think that it's indisputable that ants in your pants make you dance. Agreed? Splendid. Let's have lunch.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:16 AM on October 25, 2010


None of this explains how they get into your pants.
posted by srboisvert at 7:01 AM on October 25, 2010


Duh. They go there to get the fish, srboisvert.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:16 AM on October 25, 2010


Wow, a discussion literally about ants, comparing them to people, and not ONE person made the "I, for one welcome..." joke? color me surprised!
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:00 AM on October 25, 2010


Don't brain cells work like ants? Cells react based on quantity/types of input, as do individual ants.

Exactly. That's why I feel like ant colonies are really a perfect study in emergent intelligence, and not so much teamwork.

As the second article so eloquently spells out, a colony isn't the collective consciousness it appears to be. It's a symbiosis of individual agents that follow simple rules on an individual level. The colony seems to be acting intelligently only because that's the precision to which the rules for individual ants have been tuned through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The individual ants are basically cells in the Game Of Life grid.

There's certainly a growing acceptance among scientific thought that insect colonies can be thought of as macro-organisms. That is, the colony is an entity made up of ants, but its ant-ness is only ancillary to its existence.

Likewise, a human is an entity made up of co-operative cells (brain cells, blood cells, intestinal bacteria--all of it), but we don't act for the good of each cell within our collective. We identify as a singular consciousness, and our hard-working symbiosis of microscopic constituents are simply our machinery.

Ants may be only 'like ants,' and as such aren't useful as comparisons to groups of people. But if you map the concept of the entire colony to an individual person, and you start thinking about the mechanism by which a colony acts with intelligence that arises from a vast machine with such simple individual parts...it certainly starts feeling like a glimpse under the hood of consciousness itself.

So ants aren't really a 'team.' Maybe you could have called them that long ago, but now it's really more fair to say that 'ants' are evolving into a new organism: the 'colony.'

Very likely, the first transition from uni- to multi-cellular life played out in a very similar fashion, a billion years ago, deep under the sea.
posted by silentpundit at 10:26 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Deborah Gordon's work is absolutely worth checking out. Her TED talk starts out a little slow, she's obviously uncomfortable speaking, but stick around until she talks about her experiments. What she's finding out about task distribution is radically changing the way we think about ant social organization. No central intelligence, no hierarchy, no specialization, no blind instinct... Their cooperation is based on constant communication and adaptation. It's fascinating, and not at all fascistic.
posted by Freyja at 10:44 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


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