Saturday, July 05, 2008

civilization should be like ants

I have recently been inspired by ants. Between two experiences of having them take over my kitchen (still working on the proper moisture level in the compost bin) and listening to a Radio Lab episode about them, I think they are a great model for civilization.

Colonies of ants have no government or specific duties. Each day they all take random paths wandering around their neighborhoods. One day, one of them, we'll call him Fred, finds a good path. Since they have been leaving a pheromone trail everywhere they go, another ant may happen along and wonder what happens if they follow Fred's path. Two ants going along the same path means the pheromones are doubled. Eventually if enough ants decide this "good" path is worth traveling, the scent will be so strong the entire colony will be taking the same route. Out of chaos, comes order. Its not just a semblance of order either.

Last week I had a mini-outbreak in my kitchen and I got to see what the initial stage of this looks like- pure randomness. There was one ant on my computer, one at the edge of the carpet and one on the shelf. No one knew where they were going, they were just out to explore. A few hours later several of them were taking the same path along the wall and I was able to see that they had found the container that had held my plants at school, which still had some apparently delicious mushy vegetation.

I found the major outbreak when I returned home from a weekend away. There was a line of ants traveling from their home to a plant pot. They were taking the most direct path possible- along the floor, up the counter, along the edge, up a specific leaf and into the pot; repeat in reverse - none of them wavered from it. No single ant had told everyone, "Hey! Guess what? I found a whole pile of supplies, follow along and help me get it!" Each ant just happened upon it, wondering why everyone else had gone that way. They realized the dirt was useful, and took some. Hundreds of tiny creatures were completely organized and being very productive, without anyone ever telling them what to do.

All it takes is someone like you, wandering around and sharing your path. If it turns out to be a good one, others will follow, we will reach critical mass and the entire civilization will begin following the same path together. Sure, it would be great if the government would spread the message far and wide, but we can do it ourselves, just like the ants.

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