Ants are fascinating because they are stupid. They seem to totally lack free will and a sense of self. They are simple robots programmed to do a job, and they work like machines. The documentary Ants! Nature’s Secret Power shows grass cutter ants continuing to harvest grass in the middle of a grass fire right up until the instant they die from the heat. The individual ants aren’t programmed to protect themselves by running from the fire. They are programmed to take care of the colony by gathering food. There is no selfishness among the ants.

Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson argue that we should think of the ant colony as an animal rather than the individual ants. The ants are like cells making up the body of the animal. Slime molds are the same way. In fact, at first we thought slime molds were the organism until we discovered that they are actually swarms of smaller individuals.

In an ant colony, the queen is not a ruler. She’s just an egg producer. Complex behaviors like mealy bug herding and fungus farming emerge from interactions between individual ants following simple instruction sets. But even without a designated leader the colony does affect the actions of the individual ants.

In the early 1990s Deborah Gordon at Stanford University conducted some experiments in which she painted foraging ants green and housekeeping ants blue. Then she introduced additional food to the nest. The next day some of the housekeeping ants had switched to help deal with the extra food. Likewise, when she messed up the nest, some of the foraging ants switched to housekeeping duties.

Gordon’s experiments revealed that individual ants get some kind of signal from the colony. At the time the mechanism was still a mystery. Someone’s probably proven it’s pheromone controlled since then, but I haven’t run across that yet. The important point is that there’s a feedback loop between the colony as a whole and the simple rules governing each ant.

Like ant colonies and slime molds, humans consist of a collection of stupid cells. The big difference, and the reason we are so reluctant to classify ant colonies as beings, is that our cells can’t live on their own. However, neither can an ant. An ant separated from it’s colony has a very short life expectancy. The only exception is a queen that has enough fat stored to start a new colony, but if she can’t get some workers raised before her fat store runs out, she’ll die too. With our cells, the demise is just more immediate.