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Ants: A Simulation

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Uploaded on Oct 14, 2007

I captured this simulation a few years ago using the program STARLOGO while doing research on Emergence and Emergent Behavior.

The circle in the center represents an ant hill. The other three large circles represent food sources. A green glow represents a pheromone trail—the brighter the color, the more potent the scent. Red dots represent ants.

The rules are simple: The "ants" will randomly forage until they find food. When an ant encounters food it will take some back to the ant hill and leave behind a pheromone trail. Pheromone trails lose potency over time. Ants without food that encounter a pheromone trail will follow it backward to a food source. The process is recursive.


Emergence, Adaptation, & Organization

The game of life is very simple. It follows simple rules described by Charles Darwin in 1859 in his landmark book "On the Origin of Species". Natural selection is a process by which an organism passes on its genes or characteristics when it lives long enough to reproduce. Predators, mutation, random chance, and stochastic environmental factors keep natural selection from turning into a runaway positive feedback loop leading to a genetically stagnant dead end.

The rules dictate that organisms must adapt with respect to interactions with their environment and other organisms or risk failing to pass on their genes and characteristics. This is a form negative feedback to be sure. Together, these feedback systems drive the adaptive nature of life toward either success or extinction--life's Yin and Yang struggle—a process that takes generations upon generations to observe.

However, thanks to computers, the Game of Life can now be observed on the scale of minutes instead of eons. Given the simple rules of life and iterating these through thousands of generations of CPU calculations we can now model how adaptation and feedback affect complex living systems. The question, however, that seems to arise after observing such models is not "how are the systems being affected" but "at what level or scale are they being affected?"

Simulations of ants foraging for food and leaving behind markers pointing the way to others demonstrates an adaptation that has no doubt played a large part in the success of ants as a taxonomic group. But that's the elephant in the room. The adaptation is that INDIVIDUAL ants leave and respond to pheromone trails. Yet the individual behaviors of the ants when brought together in sufficient numbers impacts the larger community as a whole and has even influenced the evolution of the species and the way they organize themselves and their colonies. This is the effect of hive behavior; this is the "hive mind."

If you look at a number of different colonies made by the same termite species in Africa or of ant hills made by the same species of mound-building ants, you would find that they're all made of mud, all raise up from the surface of the plains, and all have tunnels and openings. After a while you might even comment to yourself, "if you've seen one ant hill, you've seen them all."

But take a closer look and you'll notice that one is thinner than another, one is taller, one has more openings. Each may appear to be similar on a superficial level yet each is as individual and different as the populations of ants that inhabit them.

Somehow we are able to perceive that two ant hills share enough characteristics on one level of order or organization to classify them both as ant hills, yet we understand that just below the surface, on the next level of order down, they are completely unique.

Even at the level of the ants, themselves, there is prejudice in observing the masses of them all hurrying to and fro and then simply lumping them all together under the label "ants." Indeed, below the level of "ants" there is even further organization breaking our ants down into groups of forager ants, worker ants, and soldier ants—an organizational chart that threatens to have us envisioning an infinite order of levels all stacked upon one another in this seemingly single-minded colony.

And the truly amazing thing is they did it all by themselves and without ever once having to think about how to do it...

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