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How can a bunch of stupid things do smart things together?

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An ant is pretty stupid. It doesn’t have much of a brain, no will and no plan and yet many ants together are smart. An ant colony can construct complex structures. Some colony’s keep farms of fungi; others can take care of cattle. They can wage war or defend themselves. How is this possible? How can a bunch of stupid things do smart things together?

This phenomenon is called Emergence and it is one of the most fascinating and mysterious features of our universe. In a nutshell, it describes small things forming bigger things that have different properties than the sum of their parts. Emergence is complexity arising from simplicity, and emergence is absolutely everywhere.

It turns out more is different. This different property is itself a new thing, and that new thing can couple with other new things to repeat the process. You can imagine this as layers stacked upon each other, with each layer made from more complex parts.

Atoms form molecule. Molecules form proteins. Proteins make up cells. Cells make up organs. Organs form individuals. Individuals form societies. But how can something be more than the sum of its parts? How do ants form the sort of cloudy entity that is a colony? By following a ruleset that produces order through chaos.

For example, let’s look at how an ant colony distribute jobs. Let’s assume a colony shall have 25% workers, 25% caretakers, 25% soldiers and 25% gatherers. Ant communicate their current job via chemicals. For example, the worker ant constantly, secretes chemicals that say: “I’m a worker”. When ants meet other ants, they smell each other to gather information, telling each other their job and what they’re doing. Both keep track who they’ve met in the past. Now imagine an anteater kills most of the gatherers. If this isn’t fixed quickly, the colony will starve. Many worker ants need to switch jobs, but how do you tell this to thousands of them? Simple. You don’t. Our little worker ant will still meet and smell other ants but it will encounter almost no gatherers at all. It counts too few gatherers, until it reaches a critical point, and then changes its job. The worker becomes a gatherer. Other ants will do the same, until after a while there are enough gatherers again. The balance is the restored all by itself.

The action and interactions of an individual are random. You can’t plan which ant will encounter which other ant. But the simple set of rules is so elegant that a colony’s many operations emerges as a consequence.

On an even more fundamental level, hundreds of millions of complicated molecules interact to maintain a robust and amazing structure. A being with vastly different properties than the sum of its dead parts emerges. The smallest unit of life: a cell. We still don’t have clear definition of what living thigs are, we just know they emerge from things that are not alive. Cells combine and cooperate. They specialize and respond to one another and overtime, we develop into complex organisms with remarkable capacities. Your arms, legs and heart are and incredibly complex and complicated system made of trillions of individual stupid things…

…and yet we breathe, digest and learn. How do your cells know what to do? Quite simply, our cells exchange chemical information with neighbouring cells to see what they are up to and then decide what to do. There isn’t a mastermind giving commands, just single units communicating with their neighbours and acting according to feedback they get.

We don’t know why any of this happens. We just observe it, and it seems to be a fundamental property of the universe. It may be the most beautiful and wondrous property of our universe.

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