What is it like to be an ant

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Illustration by Kate Hazell

What would it mean to have a brain made up of many small moving parts? Ask an ant or, more precisely, an ant colony.

A single ant colony can include tens of thousands of individuals (and very occasionally hundreds of thousands). That’s a lot of little minds at work, albeit pretty simple minds. But many who study ants believe that ant colonies as a whole could reasonably be seen as exhibiting collective consciousness.

The extent to which social insects like ants can be considered a “beehive spirit” has been a subject of scientific interest for a century or more. The famous American entomologist William Morton Wheeler argued in 1911 that the ant colony, “like the cell or the person,” “behaves as a unitary whole, retaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution and, in good standing. general, to any merger with other colonies. Each colony has, he added, “its own peculiarities of composition and behavior” and is best viewed as an organism in itself.

But how to understand the interior life of such a sprawling organism? An ant colony obviously does not have a central “seat” of experience. Although apparently structured around a single prolific and procreative queen ant, she does not have great powers of perception or decision-making. There is, as the biblical King Solomon noted about the insect, “no guide, overseer, or ruler” in the so-called ant queen.

But despite the lack of an all-seeing eye, a colony exhibits unusual behaviors that seem to indicate that it has some united understanding of the outside world. They can be deceived by misperceptions of the community, on the one hand. Take the well-known Kanizsa triangle illusion: it features three circles with notches cut out, like three Pac-men with the mouths facing inward. A human looking at this figure will find that its mouth suggests the presence of a triangle. The ants too, facing slices of honeydew melon arranged in the same way, will respect the nonexistent limits of the nonexistent triangle, walking in single file along its invisible edge. It is “not that every ant can see an illusion,” the researchers explained, “but rather that a swarm of ants can see the illusion of the Kanizsa triangle.” We could therefore consider that the colony shares “a single neurological field”.

But Thomas Nagel, the philosopher who launched us in our explorations of animal consciousness, would push us further to ask ourselves: what is it? to be a colony of ants? Could we say that this entity has feelings or self-awareness? It is a more complex question, but biologists are not discouraged. In a 2019 article, scientists from Stanford and Volda University College in Norway suggested how we might test the emotional state of a colony: we could train the colonies, like we do with dogs, to positive reinforcement and negative, teaching them to feed more or less in response to changes in light levels, for example, and then see if its limbs react with anxiety to an ambiguous signal. “In theory,” they noted, “such experiments are quite possible. ”

In the absence of conclusive evidence, it remains satisfying, even stimulating, to consider the colony on a philosophical level. In I mind, a classic collection of writings on the philosophy of mind, Douglas R Hofstadter and Daniel C Dennett ask us to consider three concepts in relation to the ant colony: reductionism, meaning that the colony is only the sum of its parts; holism, that is to say that the colony has an identity distinct from that of its constituents; and the Zen notion of “mu,” which suggests that we should reject the assumption that we have to choose between the two.

Wisdom indeed. Is the ant an organism? Yes. Is the structure it lives in an organism? Very probably. Am I contradicting myself? Alright, so I contradict myself. A colony is large and contains multitudes. Like, of course, all of us.


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