An extended simile

A famous myrmecologist was delivering a paper on new developments in his study of leaf-cutter ants at some 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 new means of olfactory 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 chemicals and to produce others in return. It was, frankly, as if they were learning some kind of primitive language. But to what end?

As we started to examine this new behavior more closely, we noticed the ants were now experimenting with various new leaves which they fed to the fungi; 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 simple 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 could then accomplish! How much more quickly it would 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. However, we shall simply have to wait until some few lucky individuals blindly stumble upon this very idea.

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