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Question: What can we learn from the way ant societies behave?

Mark Moffett: I think one of the things we could learn from ant societies is clear from this oil spill, and that is the fact that humans have never invested very much in the public health and safety issues of societies.  Ants over the course of millions of years, it turns out, have put a lot of their infrastructure and labor into keeping the colonies healthy. So a leafcutter ant for example, will have giant trash bins sometimes 20 or 30 feet underground.  These, in some cases can be big enough for a person to get in.  And you’ve got to ask yourself, how many centuries of combined ant labor it would take to carve out a cistern that huge, that far underground when you’re an ant.  That’s like miles down in human terms.  And they use that just for their garbage.  And it’s very important to them because these particular ants are agricultural.  They grow fungi and they have to keep all diseases away from their public gardens.  And humans have yet to quite figure out how important that is.  I think we have to go to the ant to really understand that.

Question:
What are some of the biggest unsolved questions in ant biology right now?  

Mark Moffett:  Well, the real excitement right now in terms of ant biology, for example, is how you can get all these emergent properties with no leader.  And this is an organizational principle that ants use.  The queen reproduces, but she gives no rules.  She should really just be called the mother because that’s what she is.  She is the mother of the society, not the Queen or leader.  So the ants go around in the millions in these large societies, each with a little bit of information, never really any of them knowing what’s truly going on.  They can go on these huge search parties where none of the ants individually have any idea what’s happening, and yet as all this information, these little bits of knowledge from all these ants gets processed and the ants make their individual decisions, the whole swarm goes out and does the correct things to get the best food for the day.

And this way or organizing things is very democratic in a way and a little more close to the web than traditional human hierarchies.  There are elections that have been overturned in places like the Philippines because people passed text messages back and forth at high speeds in huge numbers.  This is a very ant-like way of doing things. 

The advantage of that is that there’s no possibility of terrorism in an ant colony.  There’s no White House to take out and so you can... it becomes very difficult to get rid of some of these invasive ants which.... you could wipe out part of the colony and it keeps going and going.  In their case, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them because they have many queens.  So there’s no center base to destroy.  So you can keep battling the ants and they’ll just keep entering your house.  That makes the invasive species really annoying because the rest of us who love all those other ants that actually do a lot of good for the environment only hear about people’s problem with these annoying little house ants.

Recorded July 21, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, August 28 2010

 

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