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The ant colony has often served as a metaphor for human order and hierarchy. But real ant society is radical to its core
It’s easy to find familiar examples of division of labour. In a corporation, some people work in sales and others in accounting; in an orchestra, some play the bassoon and others the violin. Since no one is born an accountant or a bassoonist, in a system with division of labour, differentiated skills must be acquired. ‘Division of labour’ evokes an organisation characterised by a fit between role – what each participant does – and its natural ability.
Historically, many have found the idea of division of labour a compelling and powerful model. Plato admired it, Adam Smith explained how economies benefit from it, and Henry Ford industrialised it. But it’s not natural. A vision of human society ordered and improved by division of labour has permeated and distorted our understanding of nature. In high-school biology, for example, people are taught that a body consists of cells specialised to perform certain functions. Skin cells stick together and seal wounds, while blood cells hurtle along picking up and handing off oxygen. But different kinds of cells originate from a few identical ones, and some cells, such as stem cells, can change type. Textbooks tell us that these are merely transitory stages along the way to the ideal condition in which each cell does its particular job.
Ant colonies seem the perfect natural instance of a social system governed by division of labour. All known species of ants – now about 14,000 – live in colonies. An ant colony consists of one or more reproductive females, called ‘queens’, who lay the eggs. All the rest of the ants, the ones you see walking around, are sterile female ‘workers’, daughters of the queen and the males with whom she mated.
In the 1970s, the biologist E O Wilson set the agenda for research on ants by extolling the virtues of division of labour. He freely used metaphors from human society to describe a colony as a ‘factory within a fortress’. In this metaphor, each ant is programmed to carry out its appointed task. Some ants feed the larvae; while others go out to get food. Using a term that refers to ascribed social positions in Hindu society, Wilson called an ant’s task its ‘caste’. The idea was that an ant’s task is fixed. The implication was that the workers in an ant colony, all sisters or half-sisters, are divided into naturally fixed groups, and genetically programmed to perform a particular task. This perspective is depicted in the movie Antz(1998): a harried bureaucrat stamps each larva as a soldier or forager. Thus each ant’s role is unalterable destiny, much like the handsome and intelligent Alphas and the semi-moronic Epsilons of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).
We know now that ants do not perform as specialised factory workers. Instead ants switch tasks. An ant’s role changes as it grows older and as changing conditions shift the colony’s needs. An ant that feeds the larvae one week might go out to get food the next. Yet in an ant colony, no one is in charge or tells another what to do. So what determines which ant does which task, and when ants switch roles?
The colony is not a monarchy. The queen merely lays the eggs. Like many natural systems without central control, ant societies are in fact organised not by division of labour but by a distributed process, in which an ant’s social role is a response to interactions with other ants. In brief encounters, ants use their antennae to smell one another, or to detect a chemical that another ant has recently deposited. Taken in the aggregate, these simple interactions between ants allow colonies to adjust the numbers performing each task and to respond to the changing world. This social coordination occurs without any individual ant making any assessment of what needs to be done.
For millennia, ants have been held up as models for human societies, characterised by coordinated and efficient mutual regard and selfless hard work. In The Iliad, Zeus changes the ants of Thessaly to soldiers after a plague wiped out the men, creating the Myrmidons, who beat back the Trojans. Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper celebrates the ant’s capacity for delayed gratification, collecting food to be used later. Unlike the frivolous and short-sighted grasshopper, the virtuous ants contribute to their society. Aesop’s ant lugging a seed home is bringing food for the colony. Similarly, the Myrmidon’s willingness to sacrifice, in their case their lives, makes them heroic soldiers in Achilles’ army…