Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

By Ricard Solé; Brian Goodwin | Go to book overview

SIX
Ants, Brains, and Chaos

Achilles: Familiar to me? What do you mean? I have never looked at an ant colony on anything but the ant level.

Anteater: Maybe not, but ant colonies are no different from brains in many respects . . .

-- Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel,Escher,Bach


The Superorganism

Social insects display some of the best examples of what we call emergent behavior. It is difficult not to become fascinated by the abundance of patterns shown by the work of ants, termites, bees, and social wasps. The huge nests of termites and raid patterns of army ants traveling through the rain forest are just two examples. We are fascinated by their collective behavior, but also by their ecological success: the dry weight of ants and termites in some rainforests is about four times that of all the other land animals (Figure 6.1). In some ecosystems ants compete successfully with rodents and other vertebrates. We find them all around the world, from deserts to the jungle, and they are strong competitors. Some authors even propose that this strong competitive ability leads to a well-defined partition of habitats, with ants and termites playing a central role and solitary insects having much less ecological relevance. 1

But while colonies of social insects behave in complex ways, the capacities of individuals are relatively limited. The brain size of a single ant varies from species to species. In numbers of neurons it ranges over several orders of magnitude. Generally speaking, single ants behave in a simple way. As Holldobler and Wilson have written, "In the course

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Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • One - Nonlinearity, Chaos, and Emergence 1
  • Two - Order, Complexity, Disorder 29
  • Three - Genetic Networks, Cell Differentiation, and Development 61
  • Four - Physiology on the Edge of Chaos 89
  • Five - Brain Dynamics 119
  • Six - Ants, Brains, and Chaos 147
  • Seven - The Baroque of Nature 179
  • Eight - Life on the Edge of Catastrophe 211
  • Nine - Evolution and Extinction 243
  • Ten - Fractal Cities and Market Crashes 277
  • Notes 305
  • Index 317
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