A Model for Society

A Model for Society

“(These insects) seem to be the perfect natural instance of a social system governed by division of labour. Most known species live in colonies consisting of one or more reproductive females, called ‘queens’, who lay the eggs. All the rest, the ones we see flying around, are sterile female ‘workers’, daughters of the queen and the males with whom she mated.

 

The colony is not a monarchy. The queen merely lays the eggs. Like many natural systems without central control, these societies are in fact organized not by division of labour but by a distributed process, in which an individual’s social role is a response to interactions with her colleagues. In brief encounters, they use their antennae to smell one another, or to detect a chemical that another individual has recently deposited. Taken in the aggregate, these simple interactions allow colonies to adjust the numbers performing each task and to respond to the changing world. This social coordination occurs without any individual ant making any assessment of what needs to be done.

 

For millennia, they have been held up as models for human societies, characterized by coordinated and efficient mutual regard and selfless hard work…”

 

We’re talking, of course, about ants, in this case as described by Deborah Gordon in Ant Encounters : Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior.   Just as we cite frequently  the occurrences of honey in the bible, or it’s use in pre-Christian Egypt,  myrmecologists have their stories.  Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper celebrates the ant’s capacity for delayed gratification, collecting food to be used later. In The Iliad, Zeus changes the ants of Thessaly to soldiers after a plague wiped out the men, creating the Murmidons, who beat back the Trojans. And when transcrypted into Latin, besides myrmecology (the study of ants,)  myrmidon is the follower of a powerful person who, typically, is unscrupulous and carries out orders  without question. 

 

History abounds with  the idea of division of labour as a compelling model. Plato admired it, Adam Smith explained how economies benefit from it, and Henry Ford industrialized it. In the 1970s, the biologist E O Wilson extolled the virtues of division of labour; he anthropomorphized  a colony as a ‘factory within a fortress’ in which each ant is programmed to carry out its appointed task.  Much like the traditional Hindu caste system,  an ant’s task is fixed - each worker is genetically programmed to perform a particular task. 

For millennia humans have  used arguments about intrinsic attributes to justify social roles. Some were destined by divine right, lineage, even genetics, to rule, while others were enslaved based on their race or physical attributes.  In a corporation, some people work in marketing and others in management, but since no one is born a salesman or a supervisor, these differentiated skills must be acquired related to one’s inherent abilities, something Karl Marx did not fully allow for. Plato considered these differences a matter of talent as well as preference and argued in favor of specialization. For Smith, division of labour brought the advantage of learning and improvement and argued in favor of efficiency.  Ford didn’t care about talent or learning so much as in speed -  people could work faster if they didn’t have to put down one tool and pick up another.

 

But it’s not natural.  What Dr. Gordon has found is that, in ant colonies as in bee hives, the process of task allocation is based on a network of simple interactions. We know, for example, that a returning forager bee with a load of nectar will respond to the length of time it takes to pass her cargo on to a receiver bee. This creates a simple form of feedback: if the turnaround is quick, the message is that the demand for nectar is strong. 

 

This is a  distributed process in that there is no central control, while in a division of labour there might be. In the latter a  leader can decide who makes what, and the extreme example is communism, at least as it was practiced.  This is one of the distinctions between communism and socialism, something that many Americans seem not to understand, an ignorance that is readily exploited in our current politically charged climate.   In a distributed process this happens through local interactions; for example, a demand is filled by an entrepreneur.

 

The term ‘queen bee’ implies a division of labor in a hive, with the monarch giving the orders, and for a long time that is the way it was thought to be. In reality, and in a distributed process, tasks among individuals are interchangeable, which makes the system more robust and more resilient.  If a forager bee gets lost or a worker bee becomes unfit, another will take her place.  

 

Robust and resilient? Yes. More predictable?  No.  With a distributed processes  it is possible to say what will happen on average but not in particular. Such uncertainty is inimical to the hearts of engineers who love things to work the same way every time, and indeed, when I travel in an airplane (whenever that might next be!) I want the process and the outcome to be predictable.  In a distributed processes the failure of one small part is not critical - local solutions are good enough most of the time.

 

Increasingly, distributed processes from nature are being applied to contemporary issues.  Tom Seeley, for example, has shown that there are general organizational principles demonstrated in swarming wherein groups are smarter than the smartest individuals. Other examples include ant colonies as metaphors for computer systems, or the movement of a flock of starlings or school of fish in terms of traffic flow. And biomimicry imitates the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges  Two examples.   When Japanese engineers sought to upgrade their high-speed bullet trains they found that the massive amount of noise created by the displacement of air ahead of the trains, especially when the train entered a tunnel,  would create a shock wave that caused structural damage to the tunnel. The solution? To model the nose cap of the train on the beak of the Kingfisher bird, which has a specialized bill allowing it to dive into water with minimal splash. Utilizing this new nose, the next generation of high speed trains was 10 percent faster, consumed 15 per cent less electricity, and there was no more  noise boom.

 

And in Harare, Zimbabwe, architects designed an entire shopping center based on the natural convection system of a termite mound  and which uses 10 percent less energy than a traditional air-conditioned facility.

 

Thus the distributed processes in a honey bees might show us how to adjust to a changing environment at the local level,  whether it is building a home that is environmentally efficient,  deciding when to move, or changing from working inside to foraging outside. 

 

 A vision of human society ordered and improved by division of labour has distorted our understanding of nature and it can be difficult to let it go. Dr. Gorden offers  genetic determinism as an example. We say that disease, intelligence, psychosis and athletic ability are ‘genetic’;  in reality  stress, sunlight and exercise can equally determine which genes are activated.  It’s a distributed process in that what genes do depends as much on what is happening outside as well as inside the cell.

 

Why are the traditional images of honey bees and ants as analogous to specialized workers so compelling? First, it’s familiar: a metropolis of insects, each carrying out its assigned job, is a miniature version of a human factory. To envisage instead how a particular task arises from a pulsating network of brief interactions might prompt us to ponder what really accounts for why each of us makes the choices that we do, or why we act in a certain way.

 

Secondly, explanations are often easier to accept if they invoke internal properties that are invisible and do not require any further introspection. We dismiss them as “That’s the way I’m wired,” rather than struggle with the concept that each of us is a shifting amalgam of impressions and feelings, lacking a defined core.

 

Thirdly, it is comforting to think that some invisible force has imparted an order that makes everything as it should be. For some that force is natural selection; for others it might be God. Divine right makes one man a king, and for the subjects, all is just as it has been ordained to be.  For centuries, this was used as a form of social control and to justify the suppression and the exploitation of the many by the few. 

 

The recognition that natural processes work differently from our hierarchies, our corporations, our schools, allows us to see Mother Nature more clearly. After all, ant and honey bee colonies have thrived for millennia in such a way as to enhance our environment rather than plunder it as we have done in a fraction of the time. 

 

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