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.
Ant colonies, like genes, work without blueprints or programming. No ant understands what needs to be done or what its actions mean for the welfare of the colony. An ant colony has no teams of workers dedicated to fighting or foraging. Although it is still commonly believed that each ant is assigned a task for life, ant biologists now know that ants move from one task to another. How does an ant decide which task to do and when to do it?
Colonies are regulated by networks of interaction. Ants respond only to their immediate surroundings and to their interactions with the other ants nearby. What matters is the rhythm of interactions, not their meaning. Ants respond to the pattern and rate of their encounters with each other, as well as to the smells they perceive in the world.
The most important thing to note about ants is how profoundly alien they are to us. We have trouble imagining beings that are really different from ourselves. In Star Trek, the aliens just express different sorts of humanity. Lots of people seem to think that their dogs are just like them. Contemplating ants ought to introduce us to a kind of highly organized life that we have to stretch our minds to grasp. Most people, though, would rather use ants as metaphors for hard work or totalitarianism, instead of appreciating the very different world they inhabit.