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How do ants know what to do?

Link: TED | Talks | Deborah Gordon: How do ants know what to do? (video).

Ted_logoOne of the best things on the internet is's collection of short films of talks to TED Conferences. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Speakers are expected to give "the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes)".

I am amazed how people can dedicate their lives to tiny areas of study and in awe of how humanity (somehow) knits all that knowledge together in order to progress. This talk is a perfect example. This lady, a professor at Stanford, has spent 20 years digging in the Arizona desert to study ant colonies. Ants do not live as directed, managed communities. Their "queen" mates once, orgiastically, and spends 15-20 years laying eggs fertilised by that one collection of sperm. In a sense the colony is "hers" (she gives birth to every member; it begins with her and ends when she dies) but it seems she plays no part in directing it.

Ants have no leaders. Ants have no managers. The Bible was right (Proverbs 6:6 - 6:8)

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler provideth her meat in the Summer and gathereth her food in the harvest.

Yet ants somehow allocate tasks between them logically, and switch tasks according to the colony's need. Professor Gordon's question is "how?" and she applies what she learns to the study of human organisations. She has discovered that (as the TED site summarises it) the "...long evolution of the ant colony has resulted in a system driven by accident, adaptation and the chaos and "noise" of unconscious communication..."

Interestingly, while the Bible is right about the anarchism of the ant, it is wrong about its industry. Half of the ants are idle or (as Professor Gordon puts it, "in reserve") [No doubt New Labour will soon redesignate the unemployed and faux-sick "economically inactive" as "reserve workers".] Even more interestingly, colonies become collectively more sophisticated in their responses to events as they grow. Yet ants (other than queens) only live for one year. This is nothing to do, as she says, with "older, wiser ants."

This may have nothing to do with any of the topics usually covered here. Or maybe it does. In any event, it made me think. And there are enough good talks to be found at the site to forgive TED for having been where the liberty-destroying slideshow that grew into "An Inconvenient Truth" apparently first saw the light of day.