Or­gan­i­sa­tion in an ant nest - an emer­gent prop­erty


OR­GAN­I­SA­TION in the nest of a colony of ants is amaz­ing yet it is not de­signed by any in­di­vid­ual ant or steer­ing com­mit­tee of ants. Fur­ther­more, no in­di­vid­ual ant has the means to see or ap­pre­ci­ate the big picture. Each in­di­vid­ual lives for a short while car­ry­ing out its sim­ple daily chores but the colony and nest live on grow­ing in both size and com­plex­ity. The whole is more than the sum of its in­di­vid­ual parts.

The flock­ing of birds and the shoal­ing of fish are other ex­am­ples of this com­mon phe­nom­e­non if the nat­u­ral world. As long as each bird flies a pre­cise dis­tance from, and in align­ment with, its near­est neigh­bour the flock rises and falls, wheels and turns in per­fect syn­chrony as if fol­low­ing a care­fully chore­ographed plan in­volv­ing months of in­ten­sive prac­tice.

We find such mat­ters amaz­ing if not mag­i­cal. Sci­ence ex­plains them via the philo­soph­i­cal con­cept of ‘emer­gent prop­er­ties’.

Take table salt as an ex­am­ple. Many peo­ple sprin­kle salt of their din­ner, boiled egg or packet of chips to give it the salty taste that they find agree­able. Salt is a com­pound of two chem­i­cals: sodium and chlo­rine. Sodium is a soft metal and is one of the most com­mon chem­i­cals found in sea­wa­ter. Chlo­rine is a green, poi­sonous gas put in drink­ing wa­ter and swim­ming pools to kill germs.

Sodium is not ed­i­ble and doesn’t have a salty taste. Chlo­rine doesn’t have a salty taste ei­ther and is very poi­sonous. In na­ture, chlo­rine doesn’t nor­mally oc­cur as a gas; it is most com­monly found joined to sodium to make salt in the sea. Since the briny taste of salt is not a prop­erty of ei­ther the sodium or the chlo­rine, salti­ness is a prop­erty that emerges when the two com­po­nents join.

Salti­ness is an emer­gent prop­erty; it is a new prop­erty that emerges from the join­ing of two con­stituents nei­ther of which pos­sesses the prop­erty of salti­ness.

Bi­ol­o­gists ar­gue that the won­der of or­gan­i­sa­tion in an ant nest is sim­i­larly an emer­gent prop­erty. There is a divi­sion of labour and while the ants ap­pear to be co­op­er­at­ing with each other and show­ing ad­mirable care for the queen, her off­spring and the wel­fare of the colony, each in­di­vid­ual is sim­ply fol­low­ing a ba­sic set of in­stincts.

The sum of all the in­di­vid­ual, low-level be­hav­iours emerges as what we per­ceive to be high-level, so­phis­ti­cated, so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion. The whole is more than the sum of its in­di­vid­ual parts.

A Wood Ant nest; Co Tip­per­ary is the species’ strong­hold.

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