A separate ant does not shine with any special intelligence, an ordinary biorobot. But, the anthill turns out to be capable of activities that we considered only our prerogative, determined by conscious activity. 100 million years before Sapiens appeared, ants mastered animal husbandry (probably, it’s more correct to say, aphids) and agriculture, came up with wars for resources and slavery, the caste system and drug addiction. We suspect that there must be something that controls millions of ants and organizes their joint activities, and this something we call the collective mind.
The fact that the collective mind exists can be easily seen by looking in the mirror. Our brain, which is a collection of neurons, is much more intelligent than the cells themselves. And there is a suspicion that the same anthill may have something similar. But how to formulate this concept is not clear.
The problem, as always, is vague definitions. We do not have a clear idea of what the mind is, and what can we say about the concept of the collective mind. You can replace the concept of mind with the concept of intelligence, which theoretically can be measured. But how to apply the IQ test to an anthill (especially since it is debatable even how adequately it describes the intelligence of Sapiens)? As always, cybernetics will help us.
Let’s define intelligence as the ability to build logical chains, those same if () then (). The more lines of code needed to describe the ability of an organism to interact with the surrounding reality, the higher its intelligence. For example, take a bacterium. If food touches her receptors, she must be eaten. The code will accordingly be:
IF (give) THEN (take)
If the receptors are touched by a molecule that can destroy the membrane, then one more line will be added:
IF (beat) THEN (run)
Accordingly, the intelligence of our bacterium is two. Of course, it is difficult to talk about the intelligence of a bacterium, and it would be more correct to use some other term, but I think the principle is clear. It is not difficult to generalize to any level of organizations or organisms. Including per person. If a person is well versed in some subject, and it doesn’t matter which one, then many lines of code are needed to describe his knowledge, then his intelligence is high. For example, he plays the violin virtuoso. How many lines of code does it take to program a digital processor? I think not a lot. Or a person knows how to masterfully play on the nerves, this is also not an easy task, the intellect is also needed developed, although the actual code will be different. Or, on the contrary, I’m sure everyone has come across representatives of the Sapiens, whose life is determined by the same pair of simple rules, like the bacteria described above, their intelligence is simple and often exactly two and equal.
Now you can try to evaluate the intelligence of the ant and the anthill and see if there are any differences. An important property of an ant colony is the existence of specialized castes. The process of formation of an ant begins long before its birth. Depending on the needs of the anthill, at the larval stage, it is fed with appropriate food. If the larva is aggressive, then a soldier is grown out of it, if, on the contrary, it is calm, a worker ant will grow out of it. Well, the scouts are the intellectual elite of the anthill (how ants determine the level of intelligence of the larvae is an open question). All ants, despite visual caste differences, are genetically identical. Differences are achieved by different feeding regimens (eat porridge for children). Caste differences are noticeable not only visually, but more significantly reflected in the brain of ants. The soldiers do not have highly developed analytical ganglia, but the motor ones are very much so. In scouts, on the contrary, the analytical ganglia are hypertrophied.
Ants of different castes are so specialized that they have fixed different reactions to the same stimuli. For example, at a signal of danger, the soldiers rush out to attack, while the workers, on the contrary, grab the eggs and larvae and drag them down to safety. And this is a fundamentally important feature of an anthill, unlike, for example, a swarm of locusts. When describing the intelligence of one locust or the whole swarm, there will be no difference. All grasshoppers behave the same way and act more or less the same way. For example, in case of danger, everyone has the same code:
IF (beat) THEN (jump)
The same code describes a locust swarm, so quantity doesn’t translate into quality. But to describe the anthill, you will need more code, because you will need to register all possible reactions to each external influence, sometimes completely opposite. If, for example, for the worker there will be a code:
IF (beat) THEN (run)
Then the reaction of the anthill is much more complicated:
IF (beat) THEN soldier (attack)
babysitter (save the children)
What does an anthill mean is not just a bunch of ants, but something more complex. Complexity is achieved by specialization, which is a necessary condition for collective intelligence. But not enough.
The main means of communication of ants is pheromones, there are several dozen of them. In fact, each ant is a separate mobile processor that receives and issues signals (through pheromones). Ants, in turn, are combined into an anthill, an analogue of a multi-core processor. Only very chaotic, not only because of the movement of ants, but also because of the fact that they are constantly dying and new ones are constantly being born with zero personal experience. Have you submitted a picture? We have a multi-core computer running in N-ary code (N is equal to the number of pheromone types). There is a processor that prints new processors (uterus). There are processors that sharpen new processors for current needs (nanny ants). Processors that carry out intelligence; processors that are engaged in agriculture; processors that breed animals (well, not animals, but aphids); processors that go to war and capture slaves; processors are slaves. The number of processors can reach a couple of million pieces, and all of them constantly rush back and forth and constantly exchange information with each other. And this outlandish computer has existed for a hundred million years, covering the entire planet with its network. I think that there is no doubt that the demiurge of our reality has a developed fantasy.
Ants can transfer information to each other, but do not know how to exchange knowledge. Everyone has personal experience, which is irretrievably lost with the death of an ant. But there is something that unites all ants – a common memory, which is formed by the structure and distribution of pheromones throughout the anthill. It is collective memory, separated from individual carriers, that is a sufficient condition for the existence of a collective mind. The movement of ants in the anthill and outside it corresponds to the movement of the car on the navigator. The ant does not ask passers-by for directions, it literally downloads data from a cloud of smells. The collective memory is constantly changing and adjusting under the influence of the movement of ants, adding their records to the common cloud. For example, a wounded ant crawled into an anthill, it spreads a danger pheromone. Depending on the status, ants react differently to the smell. Nurse ants grab the larvae and eggs and drag them deep into the depths, but the soldiers, on the contrary, rush forward to the enemy by smell. Adding their pheromones to the smell of a wounded brother and rubbing it. If the initial smell was weak, then a few soldiers will climb. If the signal is strong, there will be more of them. That is, the structure of the anthill determines the architecture of the intelligence of the anthill. And the distribution of pheromones on it determines its memory.
Accordingly, the intelligence of an anthill is not a simple sum of the intelligences of ants. He is not necessarily above the intelligence of each of them, but he is different, he has his own memory and his own reflexes. Can the collective mind develop complex reactions to external influences, similar to conditioned reflexes? Recall the school course of biology and Pavlov’s dogs. What might the development of a conditioned reflex look like in an anthill? For example, we clap in a certain place of an anthill, and in another place we put food. If some time after the cotton, the ants are already rushing to the food in advance, then the reflex has developed.
Since memory is distributed over the structure of the anthill, the formation of a reflex should be associated with a change in the pheromone map for a specific impact. The simplest option: there should be ants that, upon receiving a signal from outside, begin to form a response signal inside the anthill, applying the desired smell to the appropriate direction or transmitting information to the appropriate ants. That is, there must be trigger ants that, upon receiving a stimulus (cotton), spread the food pheromone in the right direction.
According to recent studies, idler ants are observed in anthills, which never go outside and do not do any work inside the anthill. They only eat and roam around the anthill, communicating with their relatives. And their considerable number, it can reach up to 25% of the total number of anthills. Perhaps these idlers are not idlers at all, but just trigger ants that change the memory of the anthill in the right way. Frankly, I did not find any confirmation of my version, so it is likely that these are my idle speculations of a sofa expert.
But, this does not negate the fact that the anthill forms reactions and knowledge that are different from the abilities of a single ant. An anthill is not just a bunch of ants, just like our brain is not just a collection of cells. So, it can be confidently enough argued that the anthill has a collective mind. The necessary and sufficient conditions for the formation of a collective mind are the specialization of individuals and a common memory, separated from these same individuals.
Moreover, the mechanism that provides this memory is not important. Each of us is a collection of specialized neurons that share a common memory. And we ourselves, in turn, are particles of a superorganism called civilization. The latter arose quite recently along with writing, when our memory and our knowledge separated from us. The formations of the anthill and our civilization are not distant analogies, but the essence of the manifestation of the same principle – the collective mind.
Having arisen only 10,000 years ago, our civilization has already grown to the Internet and AI. In this sense, our collective mind is far ahead of the ant. Where our superorganism will develop in the near future, and even more so in a couple of million years, is an interesting question, but it is difficult to predict. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the ants, perhaps they reflect our not-so-distant future.