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What ants can teach people about collaboration

Three leafcutter ants carrying leaves
Getty Images
Stone RF
Three leafcutter ants carrying leaves

Many are familiar with the phrase "social butterfly" and the phrase likely brings to mind a person who's sort of status-minded.

However, it turns out that there’s actually a biological definition of social insects, and they’re nothing like the person imagined when thinking of a "social butterfly." According to professor Anna Dornhaus at the University of Arizona, the most social insects are actually termites, wasps, bees and ants.

Dornhaus runs an entire lab that studies this phenomenon of social insects, who, she says, are genetically engineered against self-preservation. They interact with each other constantly, but their whole focus is on the preservation of the colony.

The Show sat down with Dornhaus to talk more about the behaviors of these social insects and what human beings can learn from them.

Full conversation

SAM DINGMAN: I wanted to ask you about a fascinating quote of yours I read in Arizona Highways where you said: "My broad argument is that ants and other social insects have collective strategies that have been optimized over millions of years. Collective strategies are not necessarily intuitive for humans."

ANNA DORNHAUS: So, humans struggle with collective action problems all the time, right? In human societies, precisely because we are evolved, the "normal way," the way that our brain is constructed, we are thinking of our individual benefits. For example, if you're thinking of a potluck, we all benefit if everybody brings a delicious dish to the potluck and it's not a lot of work to make one dish and then you get this amazing buffet. But one person might think, well, everybody else is bringing these amazing dishes. I'll just bring a bag of chips. That'll be much cheaper. I’ll still get an amazing buffet.

DINGMAN: I think I've been the bag of chips person. So, I'm cringing.

DORNHAUS: OK, but the problem with the bag of chips — if there’s one bag of chips person, it's not really a problem. But then the other people see that and they're like, oh, that person just brought a bag of chips and I made a roast chicken, but I could also next time, I'll just bring a bag of chips, and that can lead to a kind of collapse of the whole thing.

DINGMAN: Yeah, it makes me think of the whole not in my backyard debate where you might have somebody who is, broadly speaking, in favor of a shelter for unhoused people, but they don't want that shelter to be built near their house.

DORNHAUS: Exactly. We always need an external structure — for example, taxation — or impose order to prevent these collective action problems from leading to a deterioration of the conditions for everybody.

Anna Dornhaus
University of Arizona
Anna Dornhaus


DORNHAUS: That's one way in which the ants have, sort of, a lead on us or are ahead of the game. But there's another way that actually has nothing to do with cooperation or not cooperation. And that's what I was thinking of more in that quote. So when the ants are actually doing something — so, for example, they want to collect food, and in order to collect food they have to search for the food, and there's a very large area that they have to search in — the ants have evolved strategies for solving those problems.

DINGMAN: Would this be the study I think I read about meandering?

DORNHAUS: Yes. What we are saying is they're sort of starting with a random walk, but then on the random walk, instead of just going in a random direction straight, they're doing this kind of left to right meander. So, as if you were regularly going a little bit left and then a little bit right and then forward and a little bit left again. So like a meandering river.

DINGMAN: And then what would happen if one of these meandering ants was to discover food?

DORNHAUS: So when ants discover something interesting, food or a new nest site or an enemy or whatever, they usually go straight back to the nest and tell the others about it. And so this is another thing that we're interested in studying is what information do they actually share?

DINGMAN: Is that the dilemma that is behind one of the other very interesting quotes that I found on your website, which was "biological systems are often more noisy than engineered ones; however, they typically surpass artificial systems in their robustness to a wide variety of adversities."

DORNHAUS: Yeah, absolutely. So, individual ants for sure make mistakes. They recruit to the wrong thing or they forget where they were, and we don't necessarily know in detail why these failures happen. But if ants were just walking around randomly, that would be robust but not very efficient. If the ants were always doing just systematic searches, that would be efficient, but it wouldn't be very robust. They would quickly become inefficient if you make any kind of error, and so we think that the meandering, it's just such a strategy that compromises between robustness and efficiency and therefore achieves both.

DINGMAN: This is an odd association, but have you ever seen the movie "Alien?"

DORNHAUS: Yeah, with Sigourney Weaver.


DORNHAUS: A long time ago.

DINGMAN: ... I just had this thought, as you were describing that, that movie is sort of about the degree to which the human brain rejects this ant or social insect type of thinking. Because if you think about it, that movie is about this group of people who have been sent out into space to recover some compound and bring it back. They don't really know what the compound is or why they've been sent to retrieve it. And then on their way back, they get this message from a disembodied entity that they refer to, I think, as mother, that has given them an order that says, nope, you've been redirected. You have to go over to this other planet and bring back this species that actually wants to kill all of you, but it's more important to our interests as a broader colony to understand this thing than it is for you guys to survive. And they rebel against that, and they kill the thing that they're supposed to bring back for greater understanding. And if I'm understanding correctly ... if we imagine a version of the movie Alien where all the characters are ants, they would have very willingly brought this thing back, even if it was going to kill all of them, because they would have had just this basic understanding that, like, it's better for the colony in the long term for this thing to come back, ours is not to wonder why.

DORNHAUS: That's right. And we don't really know if they wonder why or not, or if they know why. But yeah, in the literal sense, value the success of the colony over their own life or their own success. Humans often get a little depressed when I say they're not as altruistic as ants or bees are, but I actually think that's the wrong way to think about it. I think we are, in fact, from a biologist point of view, already incredibly altruistic, surprisingly close to social insects compared to chimpanzees, for example, or many other animals, even those that do live in groups. Humans are quite willing even to sacrifice life and limb, but certainly to invest, in small and large ways, in the communal good. And, so, anthropologists debate why this is the case. Many biologists argue it has to do with the fact that we evolved in small groups of probably mostly related individuals. So, in some ways, our brain is probably constructed to expect that most of the people immediately around us are our relatives, which we have some even biological interest in helping. Whatever the reason is, humans are actually quite willing to even pay fairly high costs to ensure the success of the group as a whole.



DINGMAN: Right, right. For all the bag of chips guys out there, there's more roast chicken people.

DORNHAUS: Yes, there are a surprising number of roast chicken people. Otherwise we wouldn't have the concept of potluck, right? Otherwise, we would just say, bring a roast chicken or stay home.

DINGMAN: Well, professor Anna Dornhaus, this has been a fascinating conversation. I'm never going to look at an anthill the same way ever again.

DORNHAUS: OK, wonderful.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
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