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Consider the Ant

By       Message Dr. Michael P Byron     Permalink
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How can an individual, possessing limited information and abilities, make a difference globally?

Strange as it may seem, one place to begin in answering this question is by looking to the behavior of ants. Science Dailyreports on a study of utility maximization--basically making the most advantageous possible choice--among ants.

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This study finds that: "...researchers at Arizona State University and Princeton University show that ants can accomplish a task more rationally than our--multimodal, egg-headed, tool-using, bipedal, opposing-thumbed selves." The study's authors continue: "This paradoxical outcome is based on apparent constraint: most individual ants know of only a single option, and the colony's collective choice self-organizes from interactions among many poorly-informed ants."

In an ant colony all individuals are members of an organized, integrated, highly interactive society. As such they continuously engage in collective decision making. A single ant is nearly mindless, and possesses little knowledge or information. However, rational decision-making emerges out of the constant interactions between many ants, sometimes at or above the human level.

I have already written extensively on the scientific miracle of emergence, so I will not go into detail here, other than to note that emergent properties are collective properties, they emerge out of the interactions of their constituent elements or members. Emergent properties cannot be reduced to the sum of their constituent parts. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We see this principle of emergence vividly illustrated by the powerful, rational, utility maximizing emergent group-mind of an ant colony.

Similarly, human individuals are members of an interlocking, nested set of groups ranging from family, and friend networks, through ever larger political and economic systems, until ultimately the nested aggregate of all of these smaller constituent systems produces our overall global political economy. One clear difference between human and ant systems lies in their degree of organization.

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Ants, like humans do specialize to maximize emergence. Some ants even engage in agriculture and raising livestock, for example, to say nothing of enslaving rival ants, and fighting wars for teritory and resources.

Ants possess a social order for each colony in which each individual member is constantly participating in collective decision-making. Each individual ant's input is considered in making group decisions. Each ant is wholly bound by the colony's ultimate collective decision. There is no individualism. Each ant effectively functions as an integral part of a collective organism.

This manifestation of organized complexity is clearly environmentally sustainable, since ants have existed for perhaps 160 million years. Unlike us, ants coexisted with dinosaurs for nearly a hundred million years. And they are still here, which demonstrates that the high emergence arising from organized complexity provides immense survival value. Like humans, ants exist all around the world, and their long period of evolutionary success demonstrates the robustness of their emergent complexity as an organizational principle.

Ants work for the collective good of the entire group. They live within the energy and resource constraints imposed upon them by nature. Still, they demonstrate that high degrees of organized complexity, including large "urban" centers (ant nests), agriculture, specialization of labor, etc., are not inherently unsustainable.

Complex groupings succeed because they take full advantage of a fundamental property of nature: emergence. This is the source of their success. However, not all forms of complex society are necessarily viable. Those that prioritize short-term gain of the few at the expense of the many, in the long-term are non-viable--human society, for example.

Unlike ants, among human societies, most people are effectively shut out from meaningful participation in group decision-making. Human societies that maximize individual input into group decision-making-- democracies--possess an edge over those which minimize it. However, due to factors such as capture of their political systems by non-democratic economic actors (corporations), meaningful input to group decision-making is limited to a very few individuals.

Additionally, corporate control over the mass media means that most members of even democratic societies have little idea of what is actually going on. And of course humans are fragmented into numerous, often antagonistic, societies. These factors constrain our potential for true emergence, thereby stunting our potential mental growth, and limiting our options for effective action when crises arise.

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Because humans, unlike ants, are individualistic, the loyalty of most humans usually lies with maximizing their own self-benefit. This is particularly true for corporations, which exist solely to create private gain. In theory, this is mitigated by government, which exercises a counterbalancing effect by providing public goods. However, around the world, as I've noted, governments have effectively been captured by global corporations.

Thus, human society from the global level down to the local one is predicated upon utility maximization for the few, and without much regard for the interests of the many. The planetary web of life within which this exploitative society is nested is taken for granted by subjective, corporate-generated reality consensus. If this essential planetary web of life is thought about at all, it is considered as an endless source of raw materials, and an infinite sink for manufactured waste products.

As we pollute our "nest" and use up our resources, human-organized complexity, unlike that of ants, is unquestionably unsustainable as it is presently organized.

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Michael P Byron is the author of The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad. This book is a manual for taking effective action to deal with the crises of our age including (more...)

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