27 July 2010

Competing against a superorganism

"The numbers are just incredible," says Mike Rust, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Riverside. "We'll do population surveys at night. We'll go to a house and put out ten sugar-water stations around the house and another ten around the property. In the morning, the sugar water will be gone, and we'll have counted six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand ants. And that's in a night."

Wilson's book proposes that what an ant colony possesses is a kind of accumulated intelligence, the result of individual ants carrying out specialized tasks and giving one another constant feedback about what they find as they do so. Well, once they start accumulating in your house in sufficient numbers, you get a chance to see that accumulated intelligence at work. You get a chance to find out what it wants. And what you find out — what the accumulated intelligence of the colony eventually tells you — is that it wants what you want. You find out that you, an organism, are competing for your house with a superorganism that knows how to do nothing but compete. You are not only competing in the most basic evolutionary sense; you are competing with a purely adaptive intelligence, and so you are competing with the force of evolution itself...

"One time I left a warm computer battery on the floor," Suiter says. "When I came back, I thought it was covered in cotton. But it was covered in Argentine ants. The white stuff was the larvae. There were five thousand larvae on the battery and another five thousand ants. They'd moved the whole brood to the battery, literally overnight. But this is not unusual. When my printer is warm, ants crawl in and out of it. Basically, whole colonies come through the walls."

"One day my wife called me," Rust says. "She said, 'They're in the freezer.' I went home, and there they were. There were two hundred thousand Argentine ants at the bottom of the freezer, frozen to death. I have no idea what they were doing there, but we took pictures."

...when we came back from summer vacation two Augusts ago and decided to grill outside on the Weber. I lit the fire and went inside to prepare the meat. My daughter stayed outside, and so when I heard the words "Emergency! Emergency!" I went running and was grateful to find that she hadn't caught fire. She was, however, pointing at the Weber and saying, "Ants, Daddy — ants!" I looked and said that I didn't see any. The Weber was enameled black, as always. Then the enamel began to seethe, and began to break up, like some experiment in the disassociation of matter. There had been tens of thousands of ants in the bed of soggy ash at the bottom of the grill, and when I lit the coals, they covered the cover, until that got too hot, and the whole scene was like a myrmicine version of the Hindenburg disaster, with cooking ants spilling off the top of the Weber and their horrible glittering larvae streaming through the slots at the bottom, while my daughter ran around screaming the one word that described what she saw...
From a long essay at Esquire, via Metafilter.

See also Leiningen Versus the Ants, by Carl Stephenson.


  1. I wish I hadn't read this so close to bedtime...

  2. I remember reading Leiningen vs. the Ants in school. It was also one of my dad's favorite stories. And before I saw your notation, this post was already making me think of that story. Gives me the creeps!

  3. He seems to be over-focused on keeping his daughter immune to killing. Why? Death is so much a part of life, and if ants are slowly killing you, what's the problem with fighting back?

  4. Jack of All TiradesJuly 28, 2010 at 10:58 PM

    I, for one, welcome our ant overlords!


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