Insect Superorganisms

Deborah Gordon - Biologist who studies how ant colonies work without central control, using networks of simple interactions.
Discussion of the processes that enable collective behavior to evolve in eusocial insects.
The emergence of global collective behavior from thousands of local interactions on the part of individual insects is an instructive model for studying the same phenomenon in human groups.
Deborah Gordon is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University who “studies how ant colonies work without central control using networks of simple interactions, and how these networks evolve in relation to changing environments.” The Gordon Lab at Stanford researches collective behavior in many forms, “such as emergence, self-organization, superorganism, quorum sensing, artificial intelligence, and dynamical networks.”

Teilhard remarked on one significant difference between collective behavior in human groups and that found in ant colonies: ants, like all eusocial insects, engage in their extraordinarily cooperative behavior because the members of a colony are closely related genetically, so the influence of kin selection binds them into what Teilhard calls a “family structure” in this passage from The Formation of the Noosphere:

“Viewed in this aspect, entirely borne out by experience, the collective human organism which the economists so hazily envisage emerges decisively from the mists of speculation to take its place and assume the brilliance of a clearly defined star of the first magnitude in the zoological sky. Until this point was reached Nature, in her generalized effort of “complexification,” to which I shall return later, had failed for lack of suitable material to achieve any grouping of individuals outside the family structure (the termitary, the ant hill, the hive). With man, thanks to the extraordinary agglutinative property of thought, she has at last been able to achieve, throughout an entire living group, a total synthesis of which the process is still clearly apparent, if we trouble to look, in the “scaled” structure of the modern human world.

”He accurately observes that forces other than kin selection bind the “collective human organism” into cohesive groups, identified here as the “agglutinative property of thought”. However, despite the obvious differences between ant colonies and human groups, there is much about the collective behavior of ants that’s been discovered since Teilhard’s time. And that’s why Science of the Noosphere wanted to have this conversation with Deborah Gordon.

In one of her books, Ant Encounters, Deborah writes:

“Ants are more than a hundred million years older than humans, and they cover the land surface of the planet. Probably people have always watched ants, and probably they have always asked the same question: How can ants get anything done when no one is in charge? Whoever wrote Proverbs 6:6 put it this way: “Look to the ant, thou sluggard—consider her ways and be wise. Without chief, overseer or ruler, she gathers the harvest in the summer to eat in the winter.” The history of our understanding of ant behavior is the history of our changing views of how organizations work.”

David Sloan Wilson’s conversation with Deborah begins with the challenge of defining the concept of “organism”, given the fact that all forms of individual life — humans or ants — are actually composed of lower-level organisms. One reason ant colonies qualify as superorganisms is that the whole colony acts as a reproductive unit, so selection takes place at the level of the colony, not the individual ant.

One interesting observation Deborah makes is that while kin selection does play a role, it may not be as centrally important to cooperation in ants as many biologists believe. Another is her research team’s discovery of a communication system in ant colonies that works in ways that are analogous to TCP — Transmission Control Protocol — the Internet standard that enables applications and computing devices to exchange messages. They’ve dubbed this system the Anternet.

They end by discussing the relevance of studying superorganisms like ant colonies to studying the “collective human organism” that Teilhard references in the above quote.
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