What can humans learn from ants? (Jacqueline, Portland, OR, USA)

When comparing human infrastructure and ants what would you say is their most common behaviors? Do you think there is anything humans could learn from ant behavior?

Dear Jacqueline,

When human designers, architects, engineers, and computer scientists turn to other organisms for inspiration, it is often referred to as "biomimicry." In recent years, more and more people have turned to the other species on Earth for inspiration. Recent and ongoing work in Biomimicry is highlighted in this TED talk (by the main popularizer of the term "Biomimicry").

However, the speaker doesn't mention much about ants (and neither have I, so far...). One of the reasons ants are so interesting is that they display a wide variety of life-styles, from farming fungi, to raiding termite nests, to foraging in the shifting sands of the desert. And they're able to do all this with very little of what I would call "individual-level intelligence." Ants, like other social insects, function without central control, using what has been referred to as "swarm intelligence." (for more of my ramblings on swarm intelligence, see a previous post here, and also this more coherent article from National Geographic).

So, by studying ants and other social insects (like bees, termites, and certain wasps), we can learn more about true, blind democracies, and how to get things done without central control. For example, by studying processes different kinds of ants (and other social insects) use to find food and tell each other about it, computer scientists and engineers have been inspired to think of new ways to route traffic, solve resource distribution problems, and perhaps even program robots. The tricky thing about biomimicry right now is that many of these are still just potential lessons we could learn from ants - they haven't yet changed the way we get things done in our own lives.

The other tricky thing about biomimicry is that, like things you read in a blog post, sometimes what seem to be cogent lessons need to be evaluated and taken with a grain of salt. For example, in this article, the author uses the example of fungus-growing ants as a system of agriculture that we should learn from (perhaps just because of that charismatic image), but in the same paragraph alludes to the dangers of monoculture, which is exactly what fungus-growing ants (and termites) do: they cultivate a single species of fungus. They can get away with it, because they've evolved the ability to secrete antibiotics and fungicides from glands in their bodies, and they have the labor power to strip acres of vegetation around their nest and bring it back to fertilize their gardens (the most charismatic ants that farm fungi are the leaf cutter ants; other types of fungus-farming ants and termites use some combination of things like soil, partially decayed vegetable matter, the exoskeletons of dead insects, and caterpillar frass to fertilize their fungal gardens). Worse, there are different kinds of ants that make slaves of other ants, ants that are very lazy (surprise!), and ants that just hang from the ceiling all day collecting sugar water in their abdomens (which I would probably try for a while, but might lead to diabetes after a few weeks). So just like the Japanese scholars studying at the "Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books" in the 1800s did with knowledge from "The West," we should study nature (ants included), but pick and choose which lessons to incorporate into the society we wish to build for ourselves.

Hope this helps!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

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