Individually Unintelligent but Collectively Brilliant

by Mario Rizzo

Today on CBS Sunday Morning there was a very interesting program about ants. In the aggregate inept creatures create amazing structures. And what’s more they do it without central direction. However, they are extremely specialized. They follow, in effect, fairly rigid rules, involving imitating the actions of other ants of like kind. They do complicated things with simple rules. Arguably, one of the scientists interviewed said, humans are too smart. From the point of view of society, it pays to have mostly ignorant individuals making “stupid” choices but leaving the overall order unplanned.

There are fairly obvious connections between this story and the discussions about economists of zero-information traders that produce efficient social outcomes.

I have two main reactions.

  1. What is human intelligence for? The story of the ants gives the impression (through the program’s discussion about certain human parallels) that intelligence gets in the way. Why has evolution produced the conscious deliberately choosing mind?
  2. I hate the ants and their society. This was a visceral reaction in part but also in part a reflective society. I would not like to live in a society in which people did not reflect on themselves and on the social order.

While I think we can learn much from studying ants and their societies, I think we need to think more deeply about what is relevant to human societies. And why.



11 thoughts on “Individually Unintelligent but Collectively Brilliant

  1. Perhaps the ants advantage is the lack of political establishments. Rather then bickering about what should be done collectively, they just constructively contribute as individuals.

  2. There is another mechanism at work here in the study of ants and its called stigmergy. Intelligence is distributed and manifest in the network of interactions among the individual “agents” and between individuals and their environment. The term stigmergy (originating in entomology and popularized through computational intelligence) is a compound term: stigma (στίγμα) meaning “sign” and ergon (ἔργον) meaning “work.” Agents observe signals that trigger an action or response, which in turn may reinforce or modify a given signal, thereby influencing the actions of others – there is an ongoing cybernetic relation between mind and milieu. There are many human-human instances of this phenomenon.

  3. I’ve been reading some stuff on cognition (Philosophy in the Flesh is an interesting read) and what I’m finding is that human intelligence itself emerges from a decentralized process. Our neurons individually fire “stupidly,” yet the collective result is, well, the brain, in all of its glory. And that, I think, is part of an answer to your first question. Intelligence is extremely robust; it is capable of coming to an equilibrium with new surroundings very effectively. In this way it is constantly providing new ways for humans to survive and flourish.

    As for point 2, I agree with you, but I also agree with anti-rationalists like Hayek who argue that the limitations of human reason have political implications. The problem with intelligence is that it gives us the ability to assess the big picture, and often we convince ourselves that we have the big picture basically right. This leads to the desire to coerce others into conforming to our big picture. If human society is to thrive, we have to contain this desire. We don’t need to reduce our intelligence down to that of ants, but we do need to be chastened in our intelligence. We are still very much like the ants, in that despite being individually much more intelligent than the ants, yet collectively we are still more intelligent than any of us could individually hope to be.

  4. In Antz, the 1998 animation movie about a Central Park ant colony, an individualistic ant with the voice of Woody Allen has great one liners against the collectivist culture to which he is expected to conform. The dance scene is brilliantly funny.

  5. The neo-Darwinian answer to your first reaction is that natural selection “selects” traits that promote the reproductive success of the individual organism. All kinds of explanations have been given for why intelligence increases one’s reproductive success, some reasonable and others – if you ask me – are quite strained. Any benefit to the collective accorded by these traits must be seen as incidental on this theory, or else you need a different theory. In the case of ants and bees, for example, a group selection theory, one which, last time I looked, was not widely accepted by biologists. On the other hand, I have never been convinced by explanations based on selfish gene theory or its variants that purport to account for the evolutionary success of ants, bees, etc..

    Human intelligence may eventually lead to our collective undoing, it’s far too early to say, evolutionarily speaking that is.

  6. What manwithoutqualties said.

    Also . . .

    Darwin thought insect societies with high levels of altruism were the product of group selection. David Sloan Wilson has rehabilitated the theory of group selection in biology.

    There are a few competing theories of human intelligence, though I’m not really up on that issue. One big theory says that it’s about our social nature, rather than understanding or coping with the extra-human ecology. I have literally heard of a theory that says, apparently, that our intelligence evolved mostly to help us lie! I would love to see the original article on that theory.

  7. Perhaps the ants tell us there is no such thing as macroeconomics. I believe Mr. Graber’s comment is a bulls eye. For surely none of us is as intelligent as we think we are, especially when we form bureaucracies, which are of course inversely related to both IQ and innovation.

    Mr. Rizzo intuitively hates the ant society. I urge him to consider that perhaps human culture has learned many of the wrong lessons since gaining a self-conscious mind.

    For instead of using it to improve our own actions and our communication/signaling within society, we have built a hierarchical society with it, which any ant will tell us we do not need. This means our adaptability and innovation is greatly decreased and renders our innovation a largely solitary endeavor to the extent that institutions make social interaction inflexible.

  8. N ice post there. Its true that a individual person can’t do a big as one person. But if he joined some more person with him then he can do bigger thing then individual.

  9. Maybe someday they can perform an experiment where they make one ant smarter then the others and see what happens. I bet she either gets fat and lazy or eaten.

  10. The main difference between the animal kingdom and modern humans is that our brains at birth are barely formed, and take 25 years to complete their final growth, while animals arrive at birth pretty much pre-wired for a pre-determined lifestyle. That extraordinary difference allows each human’s cognitive capability to develop as needed by whatever environment it finds itself exposed to as it grows through childhood. This process has been the study of today’s neuroscientists who have discovered that our message centers develop a myelin cover that optimizes their ability and grows in direct proportion to the use made of it. Such a process has significant meaning in shaping schools and childhoods of each generation.

    Thus a gazelle is born fully myelinated, ready to get up and flee the lion, but unable to adapt or develop any other skills that might make for a better existence. Most animals live as they have always lived once they speciated. Thus, Turtles, and just about every other animal specie, have not modified their habitat or altered the way they exist and survive within that environment. Humans have made major changes–bridges, A/C, airplanes, flush toilets, chocolate candies, hip replacements, etc., and in effect control their destiny, exercize free will, and enjoy freedom.

    The ants are the polar opposite of humans–totally predetermined at birth into fixed roles and functions. The genius of humans is their indepednence and self-reliance that allows them to innovate, build, create, and escape any major dependency on their environment. And such advances can be made by individuals and cooperatively executed by groups.

    Someone famously commented on communism or Marxism, saying, “Great theory, wrong specie,” meaning it works, within limits, for ants, but would have precluded all the advances mankind has achieved. And of course, if applied rigorously, would preclude future advances.

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