Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
09 Sep 2010
Making a case for ant-watchers
There is a fascinating parallel between ubiquitous ants and urban traffic. Other than numbers, peak traffic flow is symbolic of collective behavior of ants, as at a critical concentration it bifurcates into a new branch where not only it pushes others but gets pushed by others too. In dilute traffic flows, however, much like ants you follow your inclination.
Not without reason is the use of ‘ant’ algorithms a thriving industry in computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics. Ants’ collective intelligence is now being used to encourage research leading to the development of vehicles that can navigate using moment-to-moment responses to their own sensors, without any need for remote control.
In her encounters with ants, Deborah Gordon, Professor of Biology at the Stanford University, has revealed that irrespective of its size an ant colony operates without a central control or hierarchy, as no ant directs another. It is amazing that unlike the bees, the queen is not in charge as the colony itself acts as a ‘superorganism’. She argues that ant society offers the choice of a system for the human society to organize itself without any distinct hierarchy.
Deborah Gordon's Ant Encounters is stimulating, erasing misconceptions that the Hollywood movies like Antz seek to portray. These movies show the ant colony as a corporation with more or less disgruntled workers. In contrast, ant colonies are anything but a totalitarian society where individual ants decide what to do based on the rate, rhythm and pattern of individual encounters and interactions - resulting in a dynamic network that coordinates the functions of the colony.
Varying in colors from red to black and from blue to orange there are over 11,000 species of ants that have been identified. These social insects are reported to be 140 million years old, having survived the last extinction that accounted for the mighty dinosaurs. It is even suggested that the mass of ants may be ten times that of humans on the planet.
Given their sheer numbers, it is tragic that only 50 species of ants have thus far been studied in detail. Had the English, in the nineteenth century, extended their obsessions with birds and wildflowers a bit further to ants, there would have been local ant-watchers club! Gordon's work is of historical significance as she connects evolutionary biology with political theory in making a case that ant societies are model systems for the study of collective behavior.
Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks & Colony Behavior
by Deborah Gordon, Princeton University Press, Oxford; 167 pages, $ 19.95