June 13, 2008

Of Ants and Men

One of the reasons that I am so fascinated by ants is their ability to do complex things with their exceptionally limited intelligence. Given a changing environment, with various and varying inputs, ants are able to go on scouting missions, collect food, care for young, etc.

Weaver ants, for example, build nests by pulling leaves together into a sphere, and "sewing" the leaves together with larval silk. Producing something like this takes teamwork and coordination by hundreds of ants. It seems like this sort of project would require central planning, and someone (or some ant) who understands the aim and eventual outcome of the work. I think it is very fair to assume, however, that no one ant, nor the entire group of ants, understands what they are doing. Their biology has programmed to react a certain way, given a certain set of conditions, and the result is the completion of a complex project, beyond the comprehension of any of the participants.

I wonder if certain human institutions are of this same nature. Are there things that we create without understanding what we are doing? Are we working toward goals that are beyond human comprehension, without any of us understanding our role in the process?

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