Thursday, October 14, 2010
Via Arts and Letters Daily is an interesting article by entomologist Deborah Gordon about ant behavior that skewers the ant-colony-as-social-ideal trope cherished by collectivists and other fans of individual sacrifice. More positively, there are valuable lessons with real-world applications to be had from understanding how self-organizing systems like ant colonies actually work.
Understanding how ant colonies actually function means that we have to abandon explanations based on central control. This takes us into difficult and unfamiliar terrain. We are deeply attached to the idea that any system of interacting agents must be organized through hierarchy. Our metaphors for describing the behavior of such systems are permeated with notions of a chain of command. For example, we explain what our bodies do by talking about genes as "blueprints," unvarying instructions passed from an architect to a builder. But we know that instructions from genes constantly change, as genes turn off and on in response to local interactions among cells.And, later on in the article:
The tension between what we really know about ants -- that no ant directs the behavior of another -- and the familiar metaphors for social organization, permeates not only our stories about ants, but also the scientific study of ants. These contradictions appear in biologist E. O. Wilson's novel Anthill (2010), ...Of course, this new information will do nothing to deter little dictators from working to transform human society into the kind of paradise they imagine an anthill to be. After all, the desire to shoehorn men into such a society depends in part on ignoring man's nature in the first place.
At best, such utopians will move on to a different metaphor. Why? Because while anyone can see the study of nature as requiring objectivity, too many effectively place man outside nature, exempting such fields as ethics and politics from rational study. Fortunately, I know of at least one thinker who does not make such an error.