Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Collective unconscious labour

I am sure that in a corporate setting, the following could be made into a parable of teamwork. I do not dabble in such superficialities and so I convey to you, hopefully, merely the wonder of a phenomenon observed.

Collective labour
People who know me even remotely well through any of my online spoutings know about my continuing fascination with and admiration for ants.
Each one is such a perfect little mechanism, so tiny and yet so autonomously capable. If someone came out with a micro machine for the christmas toy market that was 5mm long and navigated itself around a tabletop, it would sell like hot cakes, or by a more contemporary standard, Greggs hot cheese pasties.
And yet, here they are in abundance! Of course, it is the abundance that makes them mundane and obscures their true incredible marvellousness. Many times I have taken an ant, (or occasionally a woodlouse, but they are more stupid) and put in on a surface with many obstacles to see what it does. What is the programming in an ant? If I put a pencil sharpener here, what will it do when it encounters it? It goes left. Why left? Ok, now my rubber, it goes left again. Is it always left? No, at the pencil it went right. It seems arbitrary, or perhaps it’s a field of vision or scent thing. I can’t say.
But how amazing! How many bytes of programming is there in an ant? How many lines of code? And can it learn? See what wonder there is to be had from simple, ubiquitous things?
So, on Cyprus, there were really tiny ants. I gave them crumbs of feta and it was very interesting to see what happened. One ant found it, waved its antennae and went off to find a colleague. They both then returned to the cheese and took a lump each in their mandibles. Then suddenly, a whole host of ants appear from a crack in the masonry and stream in a line to the feta. How did they KNOW???
Suddenly, there are a hundred ants under a 7mm long lump of feta cheese and they are together carrying towards the crack in the masonry. Now that is cooperation! Like that Tom & Jerry episode where the picnic is carried off to military music by a column of ants, drum drum drumming along, the food is borne away by a hundred tiny bodies. How cool is that! So many questions arise in my mind at this behaviour: How did word get around? How do they work in unison? What coordinates it all?
Around the pool flew several large and colourful, if slightly confused dragonflies. They were looking for a reed, I surmised, from which to deposit their eggs into the water, not realising the chlorine would kill them immediately. Dragonflies, as adults are ephemeral. They live at most a few days after an aquatic childhood as a voracious “nymph” – a strange term for such a fearsome predator. It seems a strange way to go about an existence but I am sure they have their reasons and are dimly happy with the arrangement.
So it was no surprise to see one dead one morning, (presumably of “old age”) as we were going out to look at some archaeology. It was about 7cm long and bright scarlet. And obviously dead.
The ants had already found it and laid their claim as salvage. But their lair was up the wall about 20cm. What would they do? Well, with enough ants, maybe a thousand? They had carried it to the wall and were trying to get it vertically up to the crack which served as their entrance. The crack was tiny so what they would have done when they got there, I don’t know.
Around that corner they went and started upward, all toiling together.
But gravity was not playing. So more ants came. And then gravity conceded. And up the wall the ants heaved the mighty dragonfly carcass. I was astounded and marveled at the sum of the tiny attractive forces of thousands of tiny ant feet as they shuffled up the wall with their burden.
It would fall, and then more ants would come and the vertical march would resume.
We had to go out then, though I could have watched for longer. The dragonfly was not there at tea-time. I wonder what happened. Maybe they gave up and hollowed it out, and then dismantled it. They couldn’t have know that the climb was futile due to the crack being far smaller than the dragonfly. Ant intelligence only extends to cooperation and not to foresight, it seems.
But I do think ants are amazing and am puzzled by the organisation that appears to happen simultaneously with a huge number of individuals. How does it happen? Is is pheromonal? Who knows? All I know Is: I never get tired of watching it.

1 comment:

Librarian said...

You really should consider making professional use of your writing, in one way or another. This is a very good article! Take it from someone who has seen & proof-read (and still continues to do so) their fair share of writing.