Reforming Ant Society PART 2: The Reality Show: Team 2

Leads To: “Unplanned Traits”
Continues From: Reforming Ant Society Part 1

The members of team 2 were types to look at the situation pragmatically, in terms of the bigger picture.  They were also somewhat lazy, messy, and chaotic in nature.  They all agreed that the fastest, best solution ought to be an elegant solution to the problem.  No one wanted to stay up all night babysitting the ants.  A micromanagement approach was out of the question.  How then were they going to get the ants to behave?  They got together and went over some ideas:

“Why not make the ‘good’ food more desirable.”


“We could add a chemical substance that bonds only with the evil food and makes it taste horrible.”

“Who knows that much about chemistry?”


“How about we dump a substance on the food that makes it all taste bad, but the ‘good food’ less bad.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

“How about we pen them all up and let them eat their fill of the ‘evil’ food.  Then let them loose.” Someone else suggests.

“Alright, let’s get started.”

One of them calls in the reality show hosts and asks for an additional supply of ‘evil’ food.  “Are you kidding me?” asks the host.  “You realize you’re trying to win this contest?”


“Well, you asked for it.”

Team 2 gets an extra supply of isolated ‘evil’ food.

On the first day, the ants are corralled into an enclosure as they leave their hole and exposed to evil food and water only.  They are forced to eat nothing but the evil food for the rest of the day.

During that day, groups of the ants are exposed to mixtures of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with different chemicals dumped on them.  Group 2 members then record change in the percentage of desirability of good and evil.  Eventually, they find a substance that drastically reduces the desirability of evil while minimally impacting(or actually increasing) the desirability of good.

The food supply is doused with the winning substance.  All the workers are left in the enclosure overnight with nothing to eat but evil food.

Team 2 goes home and has a good night’s sleep.

On day 2, the reality show host visits them and tells them: “You guys aren’t working very hard at this.”

“Why should we?” says a member of team 2.

“Your ants haven’t even started to collect food yet.” The host replies.

“Well, they’re only ready just now.”

That morning, the remaining purely evil food is removed from the cage and the enclosure is taken away.  The ants are now free to do whatever they will.

Then, team 2 does exactly nothing at all.  They lounge around all day talking, drinking beers and ordering pizzas.  They’re having a good time.

The ants, having already filled themselves with evil food the day and night before are more instinctually drawn to the alternate nutrient profile of the good food.  Furthermore, the mixed food pile has been covered in a chemical that makes the evil food still less desirable.

At the end of the day, the ants have brought very little evil food back to the colony.  Team 2 leaves them alone.  Over the ensuing days, the ants are allowed to work continually without regulations or interference.  If the percentage of evil food collected starts to go up, they are all confined in the enclosure again and fed nothing but evil food.  Then they are released to do as they will for days at a time.

The reality show host is visibly stressed out when he comes to visit them.

“The other team is working around the clock to win this while you guys are slacking off.”

The host looks at the terrarium and sees some of the ants carrying evil food back to the colony.  “What are you doing?!” he asks “Why don’t you stop them.”

“Why should we interfere more than have to.” A member of team 2 replies.  “The more we interfere.  The more we disrupt them.  We’re trying to do this as fast and efficiently as possible aren’t we?  We have to accept a small margin of error.”

“But you aren’t stopping them or regulating them.” Blurts out the reality show host. “This isn’t how the game is supposed to be played!  You’re supposed to frantically try to control the ants to entertain the audience.”

“We are controlling the ants.  We’re influencing their desires in our favor.”

“What kind of new age bullshit is that!?” Exclaims the host.  “Stop those ants with the evil food now.”

No one on team 2 moves.

“Are you doing anything at all?”

“Yeah.  We put chemicals on the food.”

“We never said you could do that!”

“You never said we couldn’t.  We also looked at the official rules.  No reason not to.”

The host is at his wit’s end.  He storms out of the room and goes back to watch the diligent and honest efforts of group 1.

When the host is gone discussion opens up again.

“How about we introduce another animal that eats mostly evil food.”

“There’s no way they’d accept that.  It completely changes the game.”

“How about a bacteria or fungus then?  Why not?”

Group 2 experiments on samples of the food supply with cultures taken from moldy bread, rotten milk, their own mouths, and the open air.  After a few days, they find a mold that mostly feeds off of the evil food.  Then, they release this mold into the entire food supply.

Most of the evil food rots and only good food remains.  Most of the remaining margin of error in the system is eliminated with one deft stroke.  It is no longer necessary to confine, condition, or regulate the ants at all.  Some days, team 2 doesn’t even bother to show up at the reality show’s studio.  They know that if they do show up, the host will simply bully and bother them.  They meet at each other’s houses and party.

Soon all the food has been collected by the ants.  Their part of the contest is over yet it doesn’t end.  Team 2 turns on the TV at their homes and are amazed at team 1’s struggles while they relax and socialize.  More days pass before they are finally called back to the studio for a decision to be made.

Both the terrariums are fumigated at the end of the contest and judges painstakingly open up the ant colonies and count the grains of good and evil food in the two terrariums.

To the amazement of the host and most viewers of the reality show, team 1 has done very little to change the initial percentages despite their hard work.  Evil food remained slightly more desirable than the good food.

The amazement is even more pronounced when team 2’s colony is examined.  Less than 10% of food found in their colony is evil food.

“We could have easily done better.” A member of team two explains to a stunned audience.

To everyone’s consternation, team 2 ends up standing joyously on the higher dais.  Team 1 stands below them in every way.  They were wilted, used up and exhausted on their journey to total defeat.  Their hard work was for nothing.

“How were you so far ahead in both speed and efficiency while doing so little?” asks the bewildered and stunned host on live national televison.

“We merely worked with the ants’ natural tendencies instead of trying to directly impose our order on them.  We simply incentivized whatever it was we wanted.”

The host clearly doesn’t really understand what was just said.  Still confused and upset, he manages to wrap up the program.

Reforming Ant Society, The Reality Show: Team 1

Leads To: “Unplanned” Traits

If one were to observe the tendencies of ants, how would one improve or ‘reform’ an ant society?

One could either:

-Find ways to force the ants to behave in the desired way.  Create an intricate system of micro-management and coercion that consumes lots of time and energy.

-Find ways to work with the nature of the ants using as little force and micro-management as possible.  Direct the ants by striving to make the desired action the most easily, least riskily obtainable positive payoff.

Imagine a game show with two teams who have to accomplish a goal given them by the game show host using nothing but an ant colony.  Let’s say two types of foods have been mixed.  The food is in the form of tiny grains that no human could efficiently sort out.  The goal is to induce the ants to act as a biological filter by separating one substance from another.  The food that must be isolated is called ‘good.’  The second, undesirable variety of food is called ‘evil.’  The team that has the largest harvest of ‘good’ with the least proportionally ‘evil’ ant society wins.  The game show host gives the signal and the game begins:

Left to their own devices when presented with this pile of food, let’s say the ants bring back 60% evil and 40% good back to their colony.  Evil has a somewhat higher payoff than good amongst ants, so it gets natural preference.  It’s up to the contestants to reverse this reprehensible trend.

Team 1 is composed of disciples of order and discipline.  They begin by assigning every single ant an identification tag and number.  Using these numbers, a comprehensive record is kept of every ant’s personal history.  They build a series of closed tubes and connect it to the anthole so that the only way of leaving the hole is through the tube.  The end of the tube is positioned by the food source.  At the end of the tube a gate is attached so that the members of team 1 can regulate how many ants can approach the food at any given time.  They do this so that the number of foraging ants never exceeds their ability to regulate and micro-manage, so they can keep track of ‘who’ is harvesting what kind of food.

Now, there has to be a return gate and tube to the colony.  Only the ants who pick up the ‘good’ food are allowed passage into the return tube.  Ants who picked up the ‘evil’ food are picked up with tweezers, given a weak electric shock, and put in a holding area while the next batch of foragers is allowed through the entry gates.

Since team one wants as many active, productive foragers as possible, the ‘evil’ ants cannot be left in the holding area for very long.  They are soon given another chance.  After awhile, the data recorders will find that there are some repeat offenders.  Team 1 builds several more containment areas for varying grades of offenders.  After a certain number of offenses, an individual ant is either removed permanently from the game or killed.  It’s not contributing enough to Team 1’s effort; it’s dead weight on the finite regulatory capacity of their system.  Any forager that represents a net loss of time and energy for the system must be disposed of.

Before long, the ants start digging new holes closer to the food source and away from the elaborate system of tubes.  Each new hole must be destroyed as it is dug.  The ants pursue their instinctive course, escalating production of new holes, digging anew as quickly as their efforts are demolished.

Just maintaining order requires round the clock constant supervision by every member of Team 1.  At first, they at least had the option of closing the gates for awhile and leaving the ants imprisoned and unproductive.  Now, they can never take their eyes away for even an instant.  Finally, one of team one’s members falls asleep on duty.  During this nap, the ants voraciously seize nothing but the evil food.  The artificial shortage has resulted in soaring demand for precisely what they’re not supposed to have.  The sleepy team one member is shaken awake when his teammate comes to relieve him and both of them are horrified when they look at what has happened.  In one tiny lapse, a system in disequilibrium has done everything possible to correct itself.  Some of the ant colony’s food storage chambers are visible through the transparent glass wall of the terrarium.  It is immediately obvious that an appreciable amount of ‘evil’ food was collected and stored away.  Newly dug holes are destroyed.  The ant gates are shut.  In the furor of restoring order, all of the ants caught carrying the wrong food are immediately killed.

In reaction to the complete breakdown of the system from a single breach, Team separates the food pile from all the rest of the terrarium by jamming a metal plate of  precise dimensions down into the soil.  There is now a wall that prevents the ants from getting to the food by either walking or digging.  Unfortunately for team one, some of the ants are able to climb the metal wall and make it back over again with ‘evil’ food.  Team 1 responds by spraying down the metal wall with glycerin and any other slippery substance they can think of.  Now, the system is foolproof!  The ants are moved over to the food by direct human intervention.  Unfortunately, the ants are so disoriented by being picked up and moved around that they do not readily pick up the food and try to bring it back to the colony.  They never followed a food trail, they have no food trail to follow back.  The few ants that do pick up food, usually drop it as soon as they are picked up again and try to struggle and defend themselves.  The system has grown so complex and so heavily compromised the nature of the ants that the attempted reforms finally lead to a complete breakdown in productivity.  No food is collected at all.

To pull out the metal plate and regress is to bring an end to progress admit a fatal excess of order yet Team 1 has to if they want to continue to compete.  The former system is reinstated and as time wears on, there are more errors than before as everyone on team 1 is steadily worn down by the relentless upkeep.  Team one’s leader gives the group a last desperate speech:

“This system would have worked perfectly if we just could have done it perfectly.”

“But we’re people.  We make mistakes.” Someone points out.  “In this system even the smallest mistake is disastrous.”

“Then don’t make mistakes.” Commands the leader.

“We’re trying not to!” Exclaims someone else.

“Then you’re not trying hard enough!  If only we were perfect.” Responds the leader  “We clearly need a system to control us controlling the ants.  Ha!  The perfect idea.”

The other members of team 1 just stare blankly at the idea of having yet more systematic constructs to maintain.  They are only human.  They are exhausted.

Team 1 maintains the system as best they can for the next few days.  They are so disheartened that they make more mistakes than ever.  Some almost stop caring, convinced they’ve lost and the whole contest is a supreme waste of time.

Finally, the last of the food pile is gone.  The game show personnel emerge to congratulate them and appraise the results.  Team 1 is for the most part just happy it’s over now.  The moment their system is gone, the ants start behaving exactly as before.  It is as if team 1 never existed.

Part 2

Sculpting Nature and Societies

Humans can’t go backwards as much as they might often like to.  Any group that becomes less competitive than its neighbors will surely be pushed aside and reduced to a historical footnote.  Yet societies as we know them must be repressive.  This is because modern mass societies are in inherent conflict with the human being’s animal nature.

Furthermore, fleeing to nature is no paradise or solution.  When instincts rule, there’s a lot of zero sum mating games and conflicts over resources.  Technology is older than Homo sapiens, our species is not properly developed to survive without it.  There is no stamping out or eliminating it.  In a way of thinking, we are unnatural by nature.

There’s nothing inherently sacred about nature.  It’s a spontaneously occurring system of genetic selection.  Human technology based societies simply have a somewhat different, slightly less spontaneous system of selection.  Our system is not necessarily any less valid than nature.  In many ways our notion of separation from the natural world is fallacious.

Take an ant colony for instance.  It’s an enclosed territory that is governed by the reality of their collective.  The laws that govern ant survival are considerably different within the colony than in the outside world.  Few of us would say however, that these ants exist outside of nature or are unnatural.  Humans live in societies and laws of survival in societies are very different from those in the outside world.  In the case of ants, we view their collective as a single entity and judge its survival accordingly.  We readily take note of its tendencies, its strengths, its weakness, and its fitness.  It would be a small and intuitively achievable matter to plan the best, most effective circumstances for an ant society based on all the observed characteristics.

It would never occur to the human observer to instead try to change ant society without first changing the nature of the ants themselves.  Yet this is the approach adopted by nearly every reformer, every ideologically motivated individual throughout human history.

Humans have commonly attempted to solve social problems by punishing individuals, making changes in the rules, rule enforcement procedures, group ideologies…

Thousands of years of recorded history tells us that adopting this reactive strategy is like fighting a perpetual battle against the winds and the tide.  It is to labor in opposition to the characteristic tendencies of human beings.