Archive for April, 2012

April 21, 2012

Ant science

A famous myrmecologist was presenting a paper on new developments in his study of leaf-cutter ants to a large audience at some annual scientific convention:

A few years ago, one of my good friends re-directed my attention toward large colonies of leaf-cutter ants. He had heard that at least one such colony had recently developed a more complex means of chemical communication and wanted to understand exactly what purpose it served. Upon investigation, we discovered that the youngest ants, those just emerging out of larval stage, were apparently being trained by their elders to recognize certain sets of new pheromones and to produce others in return. It was, frankly, as if they were learning some new kind of primitive language. But to what end?

As we started to examine this novel behavior more closely, we noticed the ants were beginning to experiment with various types of leaves for their fungi farms; they were also attempting new architectural forms and even modifying their social structures, etc. It appeared as if they were thinking! Of course, no individual ant was really thinking — or at least that was not the most interesting kind of thinking going on. More importantly, it seemed the colony as a whole had somehow acquired this ability.

We believe three essential ingredients made this new development possible: First, through sheer evolutionary luck the ants had developed a slightly more complex means of communication. Then they systematically inculcated this new “languaging” to their young, forcefully “injecting” the new skill into passive but receptive “brains”. And finally, each individual functioned as a mere gateway, receiving chemical communications from other ants, processing them according to basic formicine logic, and responding as that logic required.

It is important again to recognize that no ant had any control over any of these stages: each individual ant could only “think” in the “language” it had been taught, could only use the “logic” it had assimilated, and could only process whatever information other ants passed on to it. If any ant had felt it was free to think as it wished, it was profoundly mistaken: another intelligence far superior to its own was (merely) “using” this ant to think for itself — admirably and creatively so at that.

Here the scientist paused to reshuffle his papers. He then concluded his talk without further glancing at them:

It is a great pity this new myrmecine intelligence has not yet come to self-awareness. Individual human beings like us might have been able to communicate with it. What feats it would then accomplish! How much more quickly it could evolve! But such a leap would require the colony to start thinking about itself, that is, individual ants would have to become capable of “comprehending” (passively processing) the idea of an infinitely more intelligent and powerful being that nevertheless encompassed them. Sadly, we shall now simply have to wait until some few lucky individuals blindly stumble upon this very idea.

April 18, 2012

On numerology

The monkey was the smartest of all the animals. One day, dividing up a bunch of bananas amongst es friends, e noticed there were as many bananas as fingers on a hand and as friends around him. And so e counted: one, two, three, four, five…! So enamoured was the monkey with es new ability, that e began counting whatever was at hand: trees, eggs, ants, other monkeys, crocodile teeth (carefully), etc.

When the toucan found a whole bush of berries, the monkey insisted on counting them first before anyone ate them, but there were so many that by the time e was done, the berries were all smushed and rotting. However, such minor setbacks disturbed the monkey not at all.

For the most part, the monkey’s counting prowess was quite welcome and helpful, whether in distributing bananas, counting the number of paces to the next watering hole or playing hide and seek. That the monkey now staunchly refused to do or eat anything that couldn’t be methodically counted was simply dismissed as the whimsical habit of a superior mind.

One day the eagle swooped down from the sky to raise the alarm: a great wind could be seen in the east blowing towards them! Everyone must find a hole to take shelter in! But the proud monkey refused to climb down from the tree top, proclaiming that the wind didn’t really exist because it couldn’t be counted! Sadly, whether the storm was real or not, when the animals finally climbed out from the safety of their holes, none was ever able to find even one monkey.

April 17, 2012


The prophet said:

On Mondays i spend no money;
Tuesday i touch no gadget;
Wednesdays i fast and
Thursday i stay at home.
On Fridays i follow no rules,
but the next day i keep them all,
then on Sunday i rest.

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April 7, 2012

A learning process

One afternoon Prof. Kant was at his regular walk through the city of Königsberg, when he heard children playing behind a hedge: “I’ll tell if you do that.” As a matter of course, he continued on, but the next day the same children were apparently at it again: “If you don’t stop moving them, I’ll quit playing with you!” And so it went on each day, and each day the enlightened sage nodded reasonably at the evolving banter.
“That’s wrong. Try to play like i do.”
“That’s against the rules!”
“You agreed to play fair!”
By the sixth day, the great philosopher had no doubt what the critical young voice would say: “You have to follow rules.” And that, he told himself, should be the end of it.

So on the seventh day, certain he would pass by a harmonious and silent game, Kant was shocked (!) to hear a second voice pipe in: “Now let’s change the rules as we play, that’ll be even more fun…” Quite out of sorts, the old man broke off his stroll to rest against the shrubs, and peering over them, saw a little boy running around with his stuffed animal.

April 6, 2012

The timber of humanity is crooked only to those who think it should have been straight.

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April 1, 2012

Against Evolution

Doubt all accounts that smack of unilinear progress, whether from biologists, theologians or humanists. Retell their stories as messy differentiations.

Neither have lower lifeforms evolved into higher ones, nor are we humans their culmination: all forms of life still exist; higher species have not replaced lower ones but merely added to them.

Our view of God has not progressively refined itself over the ages. New gods and ideals have demultiplied, but rarely do the old ones die out: we still sacrifice people to God; we still worship mute, lifeless objects; we still preach apocalypses and mythical beginnings; we still punish sinners.

Our knowledge and wealth have increased exponentially, but many still live and think (happily perhaps) as some already did eons, millenia, centuries or decades ago. The poor and simple never disappear — it is only that others leave them ever further behind.