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


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