26 August 2006

Do social insects have minds?

I've often wondered about this. The brain of an ant is so simple that it cannot possibly have anything like a mind in the sense that a mammal does, yet the behavior of an ant colony, and the structure of the underground nest it builds for itself, can be remarkably complex. It may make more sense to look upon an entire ant colony as an organism and the individual ants as sub-units of that organism -- something intermediate in level between an organ and a cell. In some ant species, a single colony may contain millions of ants. A million ant brains aggregated together might approach the complexity of a mammal brain, though in a far less flexible way, since its parts are physically separated and cannot interact with each other so easily. Ants within a colony are known to communicate with each other using a variety of chemical signals; this may actually be not "communication" between separate entities, but something more analogous to the way different structures within the mammal body use hormones to influence each other.

If an ant colony is a collective organism in some meaningful sense, it probably does not have self-awareness as the higher mammals do. An ant colony does not behave as if it is self-aware. But can we be sure? Such a "mind" would be very alien. If it did have self-awareness, would we even recognize it when we saw it?

The implications are a little disquieting. We intuitively feel that killing an insect is a far more trivial matter than killing, say, a dog. But I wonder if, when we destroy a whole ant colony, we are actually killing an organism as sophisticated in its own way as a dog is.


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