A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Does "hive mind" give ants and bees superintelligence?

February 14, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

My question is about hive-mind. Do ants and bees become smarter in larger groups? Could the largest ant colonies be sitting around, laughing at humans for believing we're so smart? For all we know, there could be a colony of billions of ants below us, plotting the destruction of humans and the eventual takeover of Earth.

"Hive mind" is basically a science-fiction concept that extrapolates from a reality that's a lot less flashy. It's not that the concept is a bad one, but the connotations are a bit much. If you go poking around in the literature on artificial intelligence, you can find some of this stuff. It's also in the biology literature, under the concept of "emergent properties" and "self-organizing systems."

What it boils down to is this.  Most animals seem to have a set of rules they follow under certain circumstances, sort of a hard-wired stimulus/response system. For some animals, like humans, this set of hard-wired behaviors is very small, and generally plays little role in day-to-day existence. For others, the hard-wired stuff constitutes almost their entire behavioral repertoire. Ants are in the latter group. The "rules" that govern an ant's actions don't change when it's in a group--the ants do not individually become any "smarter"--but these rules themselves tell the ants to do certain things differently based on stimuli they get only when they're in a group. As a result of interactions between group members, then, the group as a whole will exhibit patterns of activity that isolated individuals normally don't: an "emergent property."

Some folks have worked up computer simulations to study what sorts of rules are needed to bring about patterns that match, for example, what we see ants doing in the real world. One fellow, Nigel Franks, has done some amazing simulations that replicate the seemingly complex behaviors of army ants using incredibly simple computer programs. The bottom line is that ants in a raiding column or honeybees building a comb don't have to know what they're doing or what the overall pattern is that they're contributing to--since natural selection appears to act upon the properties of the group as a whole, the group is the level at which the complex behaviors are expressed. To put it another way, the group "knows" something that the individual members don't. Calling this a "hive mind" is reading way too much into it, but also an oversimplification of how the phenomenon comes about.

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