Learning From the Ants?

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Learning From the Ants?

By John Thompson on Animals and Society Institute

If we are ever to evolve into a society that practices the ethical principal of "First, do no harm," we must exempt all living creatures from intentional damage. If that doesn't include ants, by what ethical tenant are they excluded, and who else becomes fair game for curious researchers? And who catalogs which living creatures we respect, and which we disdain?

You have been there, certainly. The freeway traffic is thick but it is rolling along smooth and fast. Then the brake lights ahead start glowing and the flow decelerates to a maddening crawl. Eventually, at some seemingly arbitrary point the process reverses and normal speeds are regained. Yet in the space between the two events you could see no reason for the interruption.

Traffic studies show that this phenomenon becomes more pronounced with increased auto density. Now Alexander John at the University of Cologne in Germany has looked to ant colonies for both an explanation and a solution.

According to the March 19, 2009 physics arXiv blog published in MIT's Technology Review, "What [John's study] found is quite extraordinary: the average speed of the ants remains constant, regardless of the density of the traffic."

The reason offered by Johns and his fellow researchers is that "ants never overtake. Not ever. Instead, they form into platoons in which all the ants move at the same speed. Increase the density of ant traffic and the platoons simply join together to form larger groups. That is how the velocity remains the same while the density increases."

Can you imagine today's harried drivers resisting the urge to advance just one more car length by aggressively easing into a space in the adjacent lane? But that is one cause of the "bunching" and slowing. Future automotive technology will curb this inclination by electronically holding traffic in columns moving at the same speed. Problem solved, courtesy of the ants.

So often science tries to learn from other species by slicing and dicing them or messing with their minds. It is thus refreshing to see knowledge that comes from simple observation. Or, as the great sage of baseball, Yogi Berra, says, "You can see a lot by just looking."

"Ant colonies are very interesting entities because of their capacities to collectively achieve complex decisions and patterns through self-organization processes based on simple behavioral rules and the use of local information and indirect communication," says Karla Vittori, et al, of Université Paul Sabatier in a volume entitled Modeling Ant Behavior Under a Variable Environment.

And watching ants has allowed the development of an analytical principle called "Ant Colony Organization (ACO) Metaheuristic." The technique offers solutions for efficient routing of delivery vehicles or packets of information on a network, scheduling work flow, designing robots, and ways of cooperatively moving materials of differing size and weight. All this "by just looking" at these incredible creatures.

Thus it was hard for me to read of the experiment performed at Universität Ulm in Germany. Because ants typically navigate between nest and various food sources by following pheromone trails laid down by the collective, the researchers wondered how ants get around in sandy environments that would not retain chemical signposts. It is known that ants can use a form of celestial navigation to determine direction. Was it possible that they also had some way of counting steps taken to reach food, then duplicating that number to get back?

To answer that question the researchers cut the legs of some ants in a study colony to make them shorter, and super-glued stilts onto the legs of others. They found that both groups walked toward the nest on the proper bearing, but the short-legged bunch didn't travel far enough, and the long-legged ants walked farther and likewise missed the target.

That result would seem to say that ants possibly have some internal mechanism for keeping track of steps taken. Presumably they don't count as we would, so how do they do it? The answer remains unknown.

While this is fascinating I have difficulty with the investigative method. Well, its just a few ants out of perhaps millions in a single mature nest, and individuals only live a matter of weeks. Still, it seems obscene to mutilate any creature to learn more about them.

Do ants have feelings? Nobody knows. Perhaps they have no awareness of what was done to them. Or maybe some collective intelligence that governs ant behavior is aware. It is all unanswerable. But to me this experiment was like pulling wings off of insects to see how they will behave.

If we are ever to evolve into a society that practices the ethical principal of "First, do no harm," we must exempt all living creatures from intentional damage. If that doesn't include ants, by what ethical tenant are they excluded, and who else becomes fair game for curious researchers? And who catalogs which living creatures we respect, and which we disdain?