Ant Colonies and Greek Democracy

What do collective behavior in ant colonies and democratic governance in Classical Greece have to do with the formation of the Noosphere, as envisioned by paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? The following article contains interviews with Deborah Gordon and Josiah Ober, experts in each of those fields respectively. Both are professors at Stanford University, and have come to collaborate with each other in interesting ways that are relevant to our mission.

That mission—a collaborative effort by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and filmmaker Alan Honick, working with the Human Energy Project—is to explore the scientific underpinnings of, in Teilhard’s words, “a particular biological entity such as has never before existed on earth—the growth, outside and above the biosphere, of an added planetary layer, an envelope of thinking substance, to which, for the sake of convenience and symmetry, I have given the name of the Noosphere”.

There can be little doubt that a layer of human thought has been growing and enveloping the planet since our ancestors began to use language, make tools, and evolve culturally as well as biologically. It has become a dominant force on the planet, as evidenced by technology, science, literature, religion, philosophy, and the arts—to name just a few central products of culture.

However, even Teilhard acknowledged we are entering new territory as we move toward what he called the Omega Point: “…we must make no mistake about this, there will be an essential difference, a difference of order, between the unitary state toward which we are moving and everything we have hitherto known.”

One approach for exploring such unknown ground is to look for analogy—how have humans, and for that matter other forms of life, explored similar territory in the past? Teilhard himself used analogies in describing the evolution of the noosphere, such as comparing it to a brain of brains:

“Between the human brain, with its milliards of interconnected nerve cells, and the apparatus of social thought, with its millions of individuals thinking collectively, there is an evident kinship which biologists of the stature of Julian Huxley have not hesitated to examine and expand on critical lines. On the one hand we have a single brain, formed of nervous nuclei, and on the other a Brain of brains. It is true that between these two organic complexes a major difference exists. Whereas in the case of the individual brain thought emerges from a system of nonthinking nervous fibers, in the case of the collective brain each separate unit is in itself an autonomous center of reflection. If the comparison is to be a just one we must, at every point of resemblance, take this difference into account. But when all allowance is made the fact remains that the analogies between the two systems are so numerous, and so compelling, that reason forbids us to regard the parallel as either purely superficial or a mere matter of chance.”

The conversations that follow—conducted by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson with Deborah Gordon and Josh Ober—explore fascinating middle territories that bridge the gap between human brains made of billions of nerve cells and a noosphere comprising billions of humans. Each in its own way provides useful analogies for thinking about how the noosphere has formed to date, and how it might proceed toward Teilhard’s anticipated Omega Point in the future.

One is the world of eusocial insects. Biologists consider beehives and anthills as superorganisms in many ways, particularly because they reproduce at the level of the colony, instead of as individual organisms. In its own way an ant colony is a “brain of brains”—though the behavior of individual ants is determined biologically, not through self-aware and self-reflective human culture. Nevertheless, the manner in which global effects arise from thousands of local interactions provides useful analogies.

The other is the world of Classical Greece, from roughly 500-300 BCE. In a sense, an early incarnation of a noosphere emerged there. Cooperative self-governance emerged at multiple levels, enabling human culture and society to flourish. Though Greek political dominance eventually declined, its cultural achievements spread and continued to influence the course of human evolution through the ages.

We’ll learn more about the connections between ant colonies and Greece in the interviews, but we’ll end this introduction with relevant quotes from their recent books that demonstrate the intersection of seemingly disparate fields of study.

In Ant Encounters, Deborah Gordon writes:

“Ants are more than a hundred million years older than humans, and they cover the land surface of the planet. Probably people have always watched ants, and probably they have always asked the same question: How can ants get anything done when no one is in charge? Whoever wrote Proverbs 6:6 put it this way: “Look to the ant, thou sluggard—consider her ways and be wise. Without chief, overseer or ruler, she gathers the harvest in the summer to eat in the winter.” The history of our understanding of ant behavior is the history of our changing views of how organizations work.”

In The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Josh Ober writes:

“In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo, Socrates describes the corner of the Earth that was in his day occupied by his fellow Greeks. He employs what initially appears to be a peculiar analogy: “The Earth is very large and we…live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs around a pond.” Although Plato himself knew little about the lives of ants, new research on ant behavior by evolutionary biologists suggests that his seemingly far-fetched simile was in some ways startlingly apt: Greek society developed, through the historical mechanisms of cultural-institutional innovation, certain features that mimic social behavior developed through evolutionary adaptation by ants.”

The following videos are divided into three separate conversations—first, David and Josh, then David and Deborah, then David questions both Josh and Deborah together. Each video is followed by a summary of the topics they cover, with time references so viewers can go directly to topics of interest. There are also links to downloadable PDFs of the entire transcript of each conversation.

Transcript–David Sloan Wilson with Josiah Ober

Summary of Interview

The conversation begins with a discussion of one of the core ideas of our project—the concept of societies as superorganisms. Josh explains how the city-states functioned at multiple levels to manage cooperation in the face of competition and conflict.
At 2:23, David suggests that in biological terms, the Greek city-states formed a meta-population, a population of populations evolving in a multilevel process. He asks about the metaphor of a polis as an organism.
At 3:23, Josh puts forth Aristotle as the best evidence of this, and goes on to explain Aristotle’s division of animals into two categories—social and sporadic. Social animals live in groups, and sporadic animals live essentially solitary lives. Aristotle further differentiates social animals into political, and not political. Honeybees by working together and producing benefits for the whole are political, whereas animals such as those that simply live in herds are not. By this definition, humans are political animals. However, unlike honeybees that are biologically programmed to work for the good of the group, humans have the capacity to be self-serving, which can conflict with the group. David observes that the Greeks were aware of the tension between within-group and between-group processes. Josh explains that managing the tension between individuals and groups was considered the function of politics.
At 7:10, David explains why this is so relevant to the idea of the Noosphere, because the Greeks were consciously creating an organism-like entity embodied in city-states, and were successful in many ways. He asks what democracy had to do with that. Josh explains why Aristotle believed that democracy was the best system for human success.
At 10:40, David brings in the idea of demes as the smaller social unit of which larger social units are comprised, and begins a discussion of how democracy was scaled up from there. Josh explains that a key idea was the recognition that smaller units were microcosms of the larger units, and the term demos was used for a body of citizens at multiple levels. They discuss how this resulted in an early version of federalism, and how constructing these multiple levels of governance was a conscious process.
At 15:07, David asks about the system for controlling elites, and Josh explains the Greek approach to dealing with the problem of managing political equality in a system where there was social and economic inequality—essentially, progressive taxation.
At 17:55 they discuss the rarely used system of ostracism, in which only egregiously antisocial individuals could be exiled from society for a period of 10 years.
At 19:40 they discuss the cultural evolutionary processes through which democracy was spread.
At 22:15 they close by discussing why the forms of social organization developed by the Greeks continued, even after they were conquered by Alexander the Great.

Transcript–David Sloan Wilson with Deborah Gordon

Summary of Interview

The conversation begins with a discussion of the challenge of defining the concept of “organism”. The challenge arises because every form of life we think of as an individual organisms is actually composed of lower-level organisms itself. Deborah explains that one reason we think of ant colonies as superorganisms is because the whole colony acts as one reproductive unit. Reproducing as a unit is one way to define what an organism is.
At 2:10 David asks about the concept of group mind as it might apply to an ant colony, and Deborah explains the processes of collective decision-making and the collective behavior exhibited by the desert ants she’s studied for many years.
At 4:55 is a discussion of the feedback systems, both positive and negative, that influence collective behavior among different species of ants—how many local interactions aggregate to result in behavior at the level of the whole system.
At 6:25, David asks about an information transfer process that Deborah and her colleagues have dubbed the “Anternet”. Deborah explains how a model of communication they’ve studied among harvester ants works in ways that are analogous to TCP, or Transmission Control Protocol, the communication standard that enables application programs and computing devices to exchange messages over a network.
At 7:57, there’s a discussion of Deborah’s long term observations of selection at the level of colonies among the desert ants she studies, particularly in regard to survival during cycles of drought.
At 11:00, there’s a long discussion about differences in behavioral responses to environmental conditions at the individual and colony level. Some entomologists think that different colony behavior arises from the distribution of different behavioral types within colonies, but Deborah explains that their studies have indicated that most of the individuals within colonies exhibit the same behavior, which in turn leads to the behavioral tendency of the colony as a whole.
At 14:30 David and Deborah discuss the role of inclusive fitness in ant colony cooperation. Deborah explains that her research indicates that Hamilton’s theory doesn’t apply to ants as much as many scientists think.
At 16:54 there’s an exchange of ideas regarding Teilhard’s “brain of brain’s” concept, and the degree to which individual ants function as autonomous decision-making units.
At 18:52 David and Deborah discuss the relevance of studying superorganisms such as ant colonies for understanding collective behavior in human systems.

Transcript–Deborah Gordon and Josiah Ober with David Sloan Wilson

Summary of Interview

The conversation begins when David asks Deborah and Josh how they came to work together.
At 1:00, they explain how they discovered they were both interested in decentralized forms of organization, albeit in very different contexts—Deborah studying ant colonies, and Josh studying Greek city-states.
At 3:50, David asks about the distinction Teilhard made between the collective “brain” of insect colonies and the “brain of brains” that would be characteristic of a human superorganism.
At 4:55, Deborah comments on the differences between the intentional cultural evolutionary process in city-states and biological evolution in ants. She observes it’s interesting that a biological form and political form can evolve similar shapes through different processes.
At 5:55, Josh comments on the role of information exchange in both ant colonies and Greek societies.
At 7:47, there is a brief discussion between all three regarding Josh’s previous comments.
At 8:18, David observes that there are micro-cities, aimed at more sustainable lifestyles, that are being constructed to mimic the distributed processes being discussed.
At 9:00 they begin a discussion of why democracy can be successful when many non-democratic competitors are part of the broader cultural ecology. The ability to scale up democratic processes and prevent competing factions from undermining them is one of the biggest challenges.
At 13:17, David summarizes how these ideas contribute to the goals of the Human Energy project.