Give a colony of garden ants a week and a pile of dirt, and they’ll transform it into an underground edifice about the height of a skyscraper in an ant-scaled city. Without a blueprint or a leader, thousands of insects moving specks of dirt create a complex, spongelike structure with parallel levels connected by a network of tunnels. Some ant species even build living structures out of their bodies: Army ants and fire ants in Central and South America assemble themselves into bridges that smooth their path on foraging expeditions, and certain types of fire ants cluster into makeshift rafts to escape floods.
How do insects with tiny brains engineer such impressive structures?
Ever since I found out something about how ant colonies work, I’ve had an interest in them. Each ant is pretty dumb, but by following simple rules of interaction, they collectively do things that used to make me wonder if an ant colony had a kind of group consciousness. Knowing something now about neuroscience theories of consciousness, I no longer wonder that.
But the emergent behavior of these colonies is strikingly similar to goal directed behavior. It makes me wonder what kind of intelligent extraterrestrials might exist out there. It’s not hard to imagine a species that could collectively be a technological civilization, but whose individual members were dumb as individual ants.