The collective consciousness

From Brandwashed, by Martin Lindstrom:

Even termites—yes, those nasty little creatures that were put on earth to gnaw down structures and cause the foundations of houses to buckle—are capable of a collective consciousness. To put it not so kindly, a single termite is spectacularly dumb; its brain doesn’t contain enough neurons even to conceive of what it’s doing. Yet a million termites have enough collective brainpower to build giant, complex structures, some as high as thirty feet tall: the termite mound. The question is how.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that science came up with an explanation. When biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse observed many groups of termites during the early phase of building, he found that each little fellow appeared to be carrying out three simple steps. First, the termite would chew a mouthful of earth and mold it into a pellet with its saliva. Second, the termite would wander around directionlessly, and as soon as it stumbled upon an elevated area, it would dump the pellet, just as a golden retriever might drop aspit-covered tennis ball. Third, the termite would repeat steps one and two over and over.

It’s hard to comprehend how these dim-witted insects can eventually construct a giant, well-designed structure through this achingly slow, seemingly random and uncoordinated process. But they can. The more earth pellets the termites drop into place, the higher the ground becomes. And the higher the ground becomes, the greater the chance that all the other aimlessly meandering termites will bash into it, allowing it to grow even more.

When these few mounds, or pillars, reach a certain height, Grasse explains, “a new behavior kicks in and the termites start to build arches between them. The whole elaborate termite mound with its chambers and tunnels and sophisticated air circulation channels arises from the work of thousands of termites with no central coordination at all, just a few simple rules.”

The name Grasse gave to this bizarre phenomenon was “cooperation without communication.” In short, no big-cheese termite queen issued any orders. There was no strategic planning, no formal organizing intelligence telling the termites what to do. They simply created a world by operating as if they were tiny, singular cells in one enormous termite brain.

The process can be explained by a theory known as “complex adaptive systems,” which says that many systems in nature (like birds taking simultaneous flight or termites painstakingly constructing a colossal mound) are inherently “emergent” and“ nondeterministic,” which means, in plain English, that the whole is mightier than the sum of its parts and that you can’t predict the collective results simply by looking at the individual actions (like a single termite holding a saliva-drenched bit of sand or one bird about to take flight). According to this theory, although the process might be invisible to the human eye, termites are actually able to intuit “when and where to add to the structure by maintaining a high degree of connectivity to others in the colony.”

In other words, only by observing and mimicking the behavior of its neighbors can a termite figure out what it should be doing.

I’m sure that, in many ways, this may be the foundation of human behaviour, too.