Monday, May 31, 2010

Moffett on Ants 2: Photography as thinking and Conceptual calibration

Another in my series of notes on Mark Moffett’s Adventures Among Ants.
In the first note, written before I began reading the book, I set up an analogy between a swarm of bees and the human brain. In my second note, I continued with the brain analogy, specifically the reticular formation, and considered Marks thoughts about the emergence of coordinated collective behavior in the ant colony. Now I want to go “meta,” first with a note on photography, and then with some thoughts about conceptual calibration.

Photography as thinking

On page 41 Moffett has this nice little paragraph:
Such thoughts reflect how caught up I was in the drama of the moment, pressing the button of my camera each time a surprising event happened. I saw that the minor workers were able to stretch the legs of the termite soldier until she was spread-eagled (click). By this time the raid front had advanced beyond the victim, who was now deep within the swarm. Here the media and major workers roamed in numbers (click). The large ants were as plucky as the minors, and they had the size and mandibular power to be worthy of the designation “soldier”: but by dint of their location, most of them joined the fray at the termite only after the prey was felled (click).
Taking photographs, of course, is a way of documenting what you see. But, as this paragraph makes clear, it’s not necessarily the case that one first sees, then one goes out and searches for the appropriate shot to illustrate what one has seen. Rather, the act of taking photographs is deeply embedded in the basic process of observing and thinking.

Remember, ants are small and cameras have lenses that magnify small things. Looking through the camera is one of the ways Moffett sees what’s going on. He observes through the camera and must, perforce, think about what it is that he is seeing. What’s going on now? Do I need a photo? And I rather suspect that clicking the shutter does two things: 1) it causes the photograph to be taken and 2) it helps register the scene in Moffett’s mind.

Conceptual Calibration

What do I mean by conceptual calibration? There was a time when we believed that only humans made and used tools. And then someone observed chimps stripping twigs of leaves and poking the twigs into termite nests to fish out the termites. Tool use, no longer exclusively human. Well, there’s language, right? Then chimps learned to sign in American sign language. Language, no longer exclusively human. But, culture, there’s culture, no? Then a band of macaques learned to wash potatoes and the adults taught the young how to do this. Whoops, now monkeys have culture. We have elephants making paintings. And birdsong is learned, not genetic. Culture, no longer exclusively human.

Yet, for all the smashing of barriers, no ape has graduated from grammar school and entered middle school, no monkey has performed Hamlet at the Old Vic, nor has any bird piloted a space craft to the moon and back. The differences between US and THEM are the same as they always were. But our ways of thinking about those differences have proven too crude. We need to recalibrate and reconceptualize.

I bring this up because, in these opening chapters, Moffett is developing an extended military analogy between human behavior and ant behavior. I have no objection to anything Moffett says. He certainly doesn’t overstate ant mentality, as though he wants us to believe they’re almost like us. He’s quite clear that what’s driving his thinking is a sense of behavioral ecology: when humans or ants face similar strategic situations, they arrive at similar modes of organization to deal with those situations.

Now let’s zoom ahead to page 222 (I tend to skip around when reading books) where Moffett says of the typical ant:
I think it likely there is a mind in there, striving to understand the few things her genetic endowments allow her to. Is she intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.
Ants have minds, and intelligence? Well, quite independently of Moffett, I’ve long been willing to grant consciousness to worms, not very much consciousness, mind you, but consciousness nonetheless. Given that, I can’t see getting too worked up over Moffett granting minds and intelligence to ants. The fact is, none of these terms is very well defined. They may be important in our thinking, but, when we use them, we don’t really know what it is that we’re talking about.

Moffett goes on to suggests and ants have personalities, observing that “at different times I have picked out, by quirks of movement and appearance, what I am confident is the same working from a marauder ant swarm that I had observed an hour or a day before.” Of course, Moffett might be wrong about this, but I’m not inclined to call him on it – and if I were, just how would I do so? What evidence could I give beyond sheer assertion?

No, it seems to me that something like this is going on: We’ve developed a certain way of talking about human behavior at a certain level of “granularity.” This mode of talking turns out be useful in talking about animals, apes certainly, but ants too. Maybe it starts out as figurative speech, personification, but it turns out to be useful and perhaps even necessary. We simply can’t manage a basic descriptive account without using such language.

So, they are like us, in more ways than we had once imagined. And yet humans still go about the world in ways very different from animal ways. Where do we get the basic terms needed to characterize those differences? How do we recalibrate our set of concepts?


  1. Well expressed, Bill. There are many aspects of individuality (personality if you will) even among ant workers--a few of which are discussed in the conclusion of my book. The fact that some ant workers work harder than others, for example: these are called "elites" though as I point out, it might be more accurate to call them drudges. Other workers can be quite lazy: in fact, a friend just finished his Ph.D. on sleeping in bees, and it turns out even some "busy bees" can be lazy bums. Then there are workers that get good at a certain job through repetition, much like humans learn a trade (like playing a musical instrument). On top of that are those subtle differences from one individual ant or bee to the next, which form the core of our idea of a "personality."

    I go one step further in the conclusions, though, to suggest that some ant COLONIES can be harder working or otherwise different in behavior than others. I haven't quantified this, but with experience I've come to recognize colonies as individuals. This does not surprise me: colonies after all do act like individuals: taken as a whole, they truly are unified into a kind of organism, or superorganism, if you like that term.

  2. Thanks, Mark.

    And, of course, different villages of humans are likely to have distinct "personalities," no?

  3. Yes indeed! The difference is that ants are so absolutely nationalistic -- it is impossible to defect from an ant colony -- that for ants, the differences add up to a solidified whole rather than as part of a fluid interchange that occurs in human societies. Ant colonies are more like true individuals.

  4. Ah, “individual,” there’s a tricky word. Some years ago – back in the 70s? – Michael Ghiselin, I believe, argued that a biological species should be considered an individual, as opposed to being simply a group of individual organisms. I’ve not followed that discussion so I don’t know where it ended up or where it is today, but I think his idea was that, when you think about causal interactions, the species is a single actor, albeit one consisting of many individuals. Now you’re saying ant colonies are like that?

    And don’t you get around to arguing/suggesting that at least some colonies are species?