The Incredible Ant – What Can It Teach Us About Consciousness?

Ants are fascinating creatures.  Their ability to communicate and act collectively allows them to preform some pretty amazing feats.  No one gives orders in an ant colony.  Each ant decides for itself the best course of present action to take based on chemical messaging passed on by other ants in the colony.  Some ants will forage, others will guard, others will tend the larvae; they all have a small, yet vital, role to play in the maintenance of the colony.

Each ant can change the role it plays based on the daily needs of the colony.  If environmental circumstances change, such as something disrupting the food supply or damaging the nest, ants that were foraging one day may turn to fixing the nest the next day.

This BBC documentary on the incredible ant covers many of their extraordinary attributes:

While the BBC documentary is enlightening, it raises a rather interesting question.  Does an ant possess consciousness?  If an ant is making decisions on how it should act at any given moment, does that mean it possesses a “mind” of its own?

Deborah M. Gordon, Stanford University professor of biological sciences, had this to say about ant behavior, “It’s hard to generalize anything about the behavior of ants,” Gordon said. “Most of what we know about ants is true of a very, very small number of species compared to the number of species out there.”

The average ant has around 250,000 neurons in its brain.  Comparing that to the average human brain containing ~100 billion neurons, the ant brain is 400,000 times smaller.  How is it possible that such complex coordinated “thinking” behavior can arise from such a small brain?

It is clear from ant behavior that each ant is capable of prioritizing its activities based on changing environmental factors, and that those behaviors are not based on the particular individual’s needs, but rather on what the colony needs to survive.  The ant is clearly aware of what the colony’s needs are at any given moment, as well as its own.

Those 250,000 neurons are responsible for controlling the heart, the endocrine systems, sight, smell, experiential awareness of the environment, decision making, movement, communication, all the things we typically recognize as maintaining conscious life.

Perhaps the lowly ant, out of all animals on this planet, has the most to tell us about the nature of consciousness.  Scientists would have us believe that consciousness in humans is a phenomenon of something called “whole brain activity.”  That is, our conscious experience arises as an epiphenomenon of all the activity that takes place in our brain.  Given what we know to be true about the ant, I find this to be an absurd proposition.

Humans can create microchips with billions of transistors on them, yet to get anything useful from those transistors, huge amounts of time must be spent creating software to regulate the flow of electrons through the chips.  The chips don’t regulate themselves, yet the ant brain certainly does.  Where is the “programming” for how to be an ant stored in the ant brain? Where is the “how to sense the environment” program stored?  How could 250,000 neurons possibly compute information fast enough to generate all the behaviors we see in ants?

Think of what it would take for humans to replicate the functionality of ant biology with a machine.  A camera would be needed to take in visual input from the environment.  A chemical “sniffer” would be needed to sense smell.  Robotics would be required to provide movement of the machine, along with a portable power supply. And large processor to manage all of those systems and make decisions based on their inputs.  How much programming would it take to control all of those systems and process the information?  Just processing the visual input alone would be a monumental undertaking.  Anyone think we could fit all that programming into a chip no bigger than an ant brain?

There’s just not enough room in an ant brain to hold all the “programming” and processing power that’s required if we stick with this notion of consciousness arising as an epiphenomenon of whole brain activity.  And that’s just looking at the brain as a whole system.  Each cell in an ant, as well as ourselves, is just as complex as the whole of our bodies.  Cells decide when to split, when to die, when to store energy, process nutrients, repair damage, etc..etc.. yet they have no brain within them.  The DNA only acts as a blueprint, it doesn’t make decisions or create reactions.  The DNA can’t sense the surrounding cellular environment and react to it, yet each cell still manages to preform this remarkable feat.

The next time some scientist tells you that consciousness awareness is a product of your brain activity, remember the lowly ant.

  • tomkara

    Well, maybe. As far as I know, scientists still have much to discover about the functioning of the neural circuitry. Just because we don’t understand it presently doesn’t mean we must conclude that consciousness is exclusive of the brain (which, I presume, is what you’re suggesting.) T

    • Given that we can see all the way down to the level of the atom, I don’t see us figuring out how experiential awareness can arise from inanimate matter. There’s a philosophical principle called emergence that precludes this as a possibility.