Thanks to Andy K. for sending me this article which reminded him of my Life in the Ant Farm post. From the article:
society: Scientists excavate underground ant city that 'rivals the Great Wall
of China' with a labyrinth of highways
The community of ants – described as a ‘superorganism’
because of the way they coordinated themselves – carried out a
Herculean task building their giant home.
The leaf-chewing creatures are understood to form the second most complex
societies on Earth after our own."
The article is all about the amazing 3 min. video below. But as a quick
introduction, here's an excerpt from my post:
Life in the Ant Farm
Did you ever have an ant farm when you were little? An ant farm makes
the ants' behavior easily visible and controllable. They are imprisoned in a
two-dimensional world in which their decisions are limited and their needs
are met by you! They can only go side to side and up and down. And up usually
leads them to the leaf you dropped into the ant farm for their lunch! But in
Ants form highly organized colonies which may occupy large territories and
consist of millions of individuals. These large colonies consist mostly of
sterile wingless females forming castes of "workers",
"soldiers", or other specialized groups. Nearly all ant colonies
also have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more
fertile females called "queens". The colonies are sometimes
described as superorganisms because the ants
appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to
support the colony. (Wikipedia: Ant)
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many
organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial
animals, where division of labor is highly specialized and where individuals
are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are
the best-known example. The technical definition of a superorganism
is "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena
governed by the collective," phenomena being any activity "the hive
wants" such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.
Superorganisms exhibit a form
of "distributed intelligence," a system in which many individual
agents with limited intelligence and information are able to pool resources
to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the individuals.
Nineteenth century thinker Herbert Spencer coined the term super-organic to
focus on social organization... Similarly, economist Carl Menger
expanded upon the evolutionary nature of much social growth, but without ever
abandoning methodological individualism. Many social institutions
arose, Menger argued, not as "the result of
socially teleological causes, but the unintended result of innumerable
efforts of economic subjects pursuing 'individual' interests."
Methodological individualism does not imply political individualism, although
methodological individualists like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper were
opponents of collectivism. Detaching methodological individualism from
political individualism... if a properly-functioning communist regime were to
arise, it too would have to be sociologically understood on methodological
individualist principles. (Wikipedia: Methodological
Hopefully I didn't lose you yet. I know, I'm supposed to be distilling not
mixing, but I needed to draw the connection between ants and economics. Did
you get it? Ants are dumb little creatures by themselves. But even as dumb as
they are, some are more skilled at smelling and finding food while others are
better at fighting, and some others are really strong, for carrying food back
to the colony for lunch.
And in a wild colony of ants these individuals end
up specializing in what they do best which leads to a collective intelligence
far greater than the intelligence of any individual ant...
And while we're on this subject, here's another must-read:
“I, Pencil” Revisited
By Sheldon Richman
Published: 16 January 2009
Leonard Read’s classic essay, “I, Pencil,” which is now 50 years old, is justly celebrated as the best short
introduction to the division of labor and undesigned
order ever written. Read saw an “extraordinary miracle … [in the]
the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows
configurating naturally and spontaneously in
response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human
His subject and its relation to freedom and prosperity were certainly worth
capturing in such a clever, pleasing, and illuminating essay, which is why it
is one of the best-known works in the popular free-market literature.
But there’s another lesson in “I, Pencil” that has been
largely overlooked, perhaps by Read himself. “I, Pencil” is also
an excellent primer in the Austrian approach to capital theory. It’s
worth looking at Read’s essay in that light.
Early on, Read’s pencil describes his family tree, beginning with the
cedars grown in northern California and Oregon that provide the wooden slats.
But he doesn’t really start with the trees. He notes that turning trees into pencils requires “saws and trucks and
rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar
logs to the railroad siding,” and those things have to be produced
before a pencil can be produced. “Think of all the persons and the
numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the
making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of
hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the
logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of
all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of
coffee the loggers drink!”
What emerges here is what Austrian economists call a structure of production.
This structure is characterized by two closely related elements: multiple
stages (distinguished by their “distance” from the consumer) and
time. The pencil that eventually emerges at the end of the process must first
proceed, in various states of incompleteness, through a series of stations at
which components are transformed in ways consistent with making pencils. The
stations themselves have to be prepared through earlier stages of production.
Thus before trees can be cut down and turned into wooden slats, saws, trucks,
rope, railroad cars, and other things must be produced first. Before steel
can be used to make saws, trucks, and railroad cars, iron ore must be mined
and processed. And so on. The same kind of description can be provided for each
component of the pencil: the paint, the graphite, the compound that comprises
the eraser, the brass ferrule that holds the eraser.
Tracing the pencil’s genealogy back to iron, zinc, copper, and graphite
mines; hemp plants; rubber trees; castor beans; and much more demonstrates
the “roundaboutness” of production, the term of the early
Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk.
Much time and effort are spent not on making pencils but rather things that
will–sooner or later–help to make pencils. Without central
direction, entrepreneurs set up production this way because more, better, and
cheaper pencils can be made more profitably than by some more direct process.
Several things are worth pointing out about the structure of production.
First, while no central planner is responsible for pencil production overall,
entrepreneurs and workers at each stage do have plans and expectations, which
they strive to coordinate with one another across stages and time periods.
The key to coordination is the price system. If there’s a brass
shortage, rising prices will communicate that information to the ferrule and
pencil makers. The downstream entrepreneurs will have to adjust their plans
in response to the new conditions–say, by finding a substitute
material. The demand for a substitute material will in turn set appropriate
processes in motion as entrepreneurs react. In the real world of
disequilibrium, change is the rule, so plans are always undergoing
revision… Continue reading