Illustration by Kate Hazell

What it’s like to be an ant

They might be small, but they pose big questions about the individual and the collective psyche
July 20, 2021

What would it mean to have a brain of many small moving parts? Ask an ant—or more specifically, ask an ant colony.

A single ant colony might comprise tens of thousands of individuals (and very occasionally, hundreds of thousands). That’s a lot of tiny minds at work—albeit rather simple minds. But many who study ants believe that ant colonies as a whole could reasonably be considered to exhibit a collective consciousness.

The extent to which social insects like ants might be considered to function as a “hive mind” has been a topic of scientific interest for a century or more. The noted American entomologist William Morton Wheeler argued in 1911 that the ant colony, “like the cell or the person,” “behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution and, as a general rule, any fusion with other colonies.” Each colony has, he added, “its own peculiar idiosyncrasies of composition and behaviour” and is best considered an organism in and of itself.

But how should we understand the inner life of such a sprawling organism? An ant colony obviously has no central “seat” of experience. Though ostensibly structured around a single, prolifically procreative queen ant, she has no great perceptive or decision-making powers. There is, as the biblical King Solomon noted of the insect, “neither guide, overseer nor ruler” in the so-called queendom of the ants.

But despite the lack of an all-seeing eye, a colony shows some unusual behaviours that would seem to indicate it has some united understanding of the outside world. They can be fooled by communal misperceptions, for one thing. Take the well-known Kanizsa triangle illusion: this features three circles with notches cut out of them—like three Pac-men with their mouths pointing inwards. A human looking at this figure will find their mouths suggest the presence of a triangle. Ants too, when faced with honeydew melon slices arranged the same way, will respect the non-existent boundaries of the non-existent triangle, walking in single file along its invisible edge. It is “not that each ant might see an illusion,” the researchers explained, “but rather that a swarm of ants might see the Kanizsa triangle illusion.” We might therefore consider the colony to share “a single neurological field.”

But Thomas Nagel—the philosopher who set us off on our explorations into animal consciousness—would push us further to ask: what it’s like to be an ant colony? Could it be said that this entity has feelings or self-awareness? This is a more complex matter, but biologists are not deterred. In a 2019 paper, scientists at Stanford and Norway’s Volda University College suggested how we might be able to test a colony’s emotional state: we could train colonies, as we do dogs, to positive and negative reinforcement—teaching them to forage more or less in response to changes in light levels, for example, then see if its members react with anxiety to an ambiguous cue. “In theory,” they noted, “such experiments are completely possible.” 

In the absence of conclusive evidence, it remains satisfying—nay, mind-expanding—to consider the colony at a philosophical level. In The Mind’s I, a classic collection of writing on the philosophy of mind, Douglas R Hofstadter and Daniel C Dennett ask us to consider three concepts in relation to the ant colony: reductionism, meaning that the colony is merely the sum of its parts; holism, that is, the colony has an identity separate to that of its constituents; and the Zen notion of “mu,” which suggests we should reject the assumption that we have to choose between the two.

Wisdom indeed. Is the ant an organism? Yes. Is the structure it lives in an organism? Very probably. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. A colony is large and contains multitudes. As, of course, do we all.