Thursday, August 02, 2012


Ants – small brains, formidable organisation!, no Flip Chart Fairy Tales:

But wait until you read this; the story of a slave raid:
The F. sanguinea carried out a typical raid on this nest and sent a large contingent to attack the nest on the opposite side to their own position. They also sent a very large blockading force and spread these out in the grass in the direct line between them and the F. rufa nest. None of the latter insects attacked the F. rufa so, as far as the defenders were concerned, the F. sanguinea were attacking from the rear only. Clever or what?

After about an hour of constant attack, the F. rufa finally broke and the top of the nest ‘exploded’ with fleeing ants. In other words it went up like a volcano as thousands of rufa blasted leaf litter out of their way in their haste to get clear. The nest literally lost its shape!

Hordes of rufa escaped with pupae, trying to escape the pursuing sanguinea. Most fled straight into the many blockading sanguinea. The rufa lost most of their brood in the raid but the majority of the workers and all of the Queens survived the attack. These vacated the garden and made a home in an older nest.
Did you see that? The attacking ants prepared an ambush and the defenders, in their desperation to escape the attack on their nest, walked right into it.

If the stories above weren’t creepy enough for you, read about the remarkable Polyergus. (Or if you’re feeling really brave watch this video.) So specialised are these ants that they are incapable of finding their own food. They exist only as a warrior caste and must be fed and cared for by enslaved workers from other species. (Feudalism anyone?) Their queens establish themselves by invading the nests of other species and, over a period of weeks, systematically hunting down and killing all the existing queens. Once the slaves begin to die off, the polyergus workers organise another raid and, with clinical efficiency, pick a neighbouring nest clean to provide a new generation of serfs.

How do ants organise with this level of sophistication? No-one is really sure. They have tiny brains so are presumably incapable of conscious organisation. As far as scientists can tell, there is no ant general or council of senior soldiers that makes a plan. Whether it is building an underground city with a ventilation system, farming fungus, or organising a slave raid, ants just seem to know what to do. (...)

So far, no-one has worked out how ants do this but there is some interest in applying the findings of research on ants to organisations. It’s to be expected really. How often do managers wish that people would just get on and do stuff? Let’s be honest, this is behind much of the work on organisational culture, employee engagement, empowerment, corporate visions and other hearts-and-minds initiatives. Wouldn’t it be great if people somehow just did the right things without needing to be told what to do and monitored afterwards? CEOs would give a lot for just a bit of what an ant colony has. (...)

Political groups have been getting ant-like:
That’s the wonderful appeal of swarm intelligence. Whether we’re talking about ants, bees, pigeons, or caribou, the ingredients of smart group behavior—decentralized control, response to local cues, simple rules of thumb—add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.
Social and political groups have already adopted crude swarm tactics. During mass protests eight years ago in Seattle, anti-globalization activists used mobile communications devices to spread news quickly about police movements, turning an otherwise unruly crowd into a “smart mob” that was able to disperse and re-form like a school of fish.
And what about last year’s rioters? Could it be that they understood swarm theory before our big corporations did?

Nevertheless, I’m still sceptical. I can see how swarm theory works for organising protests or for aggregating knowledge, as Wikipedia has done. Over a short time, spontaneous-looking events can be organised by swarming. But how far this can work for the ongoing running of complex organisations is less clear. The trouble with human beings is that, even when they are broadly committed to an organisation’s aims, they still have their own personal interests and agendas. You see this even in the most dedicated political groups – we may all want a revolution but I want it to be done my way and led by me. It is these competing interests which are the cause of much of what we call corporate politicking and which mean some humans will always try to nudge the swarm in the direction they want it to go. Humans are just too awkward to be ant-like.

[Ainda sobre himenópteros sociais, ver os posts Abelhas e Acerca de abelhas]

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