Intelligent Design without a Designer

We found an interesting news article at the website of the University of Sydney: Leader-less ants make super efficient networks. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Ants are able to connect multiple sites in the shortest possible way, and in doing so, create efficient transport networks, according to a University of Sydney study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Here’s a link to that paper, but without a subscription all you can read is the abstract: Structure and formation of ant transportation networks. Let’s stay with the university’s news article:

The research also revealed the process by which the ants solve network design problems without the help of a leader. Dr Tanya Latty, principal author from the School of Biological Sciences said the ants make as many trails as possible, then prune them back to the most efficient configuration.

No leader? Our government officials are looking doubtful. How, they wonder, can anything get done without their benevolent guidance? And what can we learn from the ants? Stay with us, the answer is coming:

The findings sheds light on how other ‘simple’ natural systems without leaders or even brains – such as fungi, slime moulds and mammalian vascular systems – are able to form efficient networks, and can help humans design artificial networks in situations lacking central control,” she said.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before. A year ago we wrote So Easy a Slime Mold Can Do It, about a slime mold that was placed in the middle of food sources arranged in the same location as 36 outlying cities around Tokyo. The mold created a network connecting to the food that looked like the existing Tokyo commuter-rail system. A week later we gave you the expected creationist response: Creationism and the Slime Mold. They said the mold’s solution to the problem came from “a source outside of nature.”

Today we see another example of biological self-organization which gives the appearance of a master-minded design. Let’s continue with the university’s article:

University of Sydney Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman, and co-author, who worked with the team of researchers from the University of Leipzig, Hiroshima University, Hokkaido Future University and University of Uppsala said the team posed the following question.

Are ants able to solve this network efficiency problem given they have no leader, planner or anybody with global knowledge of the whole environment? And if so, how do they do it?” she said.

Great question. And they found a great answer. We’ll skip over what they did because you’ll want to read that for yourself. Here’s what they found:

Dr Latty said: “It’s interesting that the ants were able to create, on a blank slate, the mathematically shortest network between multiple points. This network design allows Argentine ants to distribute brood, workers and food between nests with extreme efficiency, and might help explain why they viciously out-compete other ant species outside their native home of South America.


So even though the ant colony seems to behave intelligently, the ants are simple individuals following even simpler rules. Understanding how simple organisms like ants build efficient networks can inform the design of human transportation networks.”

So there you are, dear reader. First the slime mold, now the ant. One of these days, maybe the creationists and the bureaucrats will figure it out.

We suggest that the creationists and our political overlords could profit from this timeless advice in the King James version of the Good Book, Proverbs 6:6, which says:

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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4 responses to “Intelligent Design without a Designer

  1. “One of these days, maybe the creationists and the bureaucrats will figure it out.”

    You’re so cute when you act all naive and stuff.

  2. There’s really something very simplistic about creationism and something like communism. The messiness of complexity is an artifact of their own authoritarian minds. It’s not that evolution or society can’t deal with the complexity–they can and they have. It’s that to impose a certain rigid and simplistic orthodoxy is made both difficult and imperative by their own lack of understanding of complex processes.

    How dare we teach children that life is complex and not understandable by mere analogy with human imposition upon the environment? It’s almost as if we’re opposed to authoritarian command and control structures, like fundamentalism and really existing socialism.

  3. The iterative application of simple steps guided by short straightforward rules to build highly complex but efficient systems has been known by everyone but creationists for a long time. Their ignorance (and ignorant) bias prevents them from admitting those steps can be undertaken by blind processes and the rules set by nothing more than the natural physical constraints of the environment.

    However, applying the success of ants performing simple steps according to basic rules to human politics is suspect. Humans are not simple and do not mindlessly follow short algorithms to satisfy their needs. Humans are manipulative and manipulable, have needs and desires based on hundreds of thousands of years of very messy social and physical evolution and proceed not as blind components constrained by clear rules, but as independent and unfocused components constrained by a foggy, and many times false, understanding of what the rules are.

    Replace those ants with humans, give them the same goals and rules, tell them they cannot elect leaders and you will not get an efficient network, you will get a mish-mash of tunnels designed to benefit small groups of humans (or believed to benefit those groups).

  4. This network design allows Argentine ants to distribute brood, workers and food between nests with extreme efficiency, and might help explain why they viciously out-compete other ant species outside their native home of South America.

    It’s interesting that not all ants have evolved this ability. Are the Argentinian ants the designer’s chosen ants?