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9th July, 2007

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Swarm intelligence

History's most astute observer of the natural world, King Solomon of Israel (1 Kin. 4:33-34), noted an amazing feature of social insect organization that is now the subject of intensive investigation by scientists, military theorists, and corporate planners:

Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, a nd gathers her food in the harvest (Prov. 6:6-8).

In spite of the complete lack of any “big brain” to decide who should do what when and to bark out the orders, Solomon realized that individual ants somehow “know” what needs to be done. How much more he knew about the workings of such colonies we cannot say. Modern investigators have found that social insects such as ants, bees and some wasps, like typical homemakers of bygone decades (formerly known as housewives), wear a number of different hats. Unlike housewives, who were called upon to perform numerous tasks at the same time, social insects can perform only one task at a time, be it foraging outside the nest for food, carting corpses, childcare, or repairing and extending the house. Entomologists marvel at the sheer genius displayed by social insects in “task allocation” — figuring out what needs to be done and adjusting “the numbers of workers performing each task in a way appropriate to current colony needs” (Greene and Gordon, Interaction rate informs harvester ant task decisions, Behavioral Ecology, January 22, 2007). No individual ant or bee enjoys the tiniest glimmer of intelligence, yet the group invariably makes wise decisions in pursuit of the colony's comfort and survival. One investigator sums up the ability of some ants to decide when to go-a-hunting this way: “So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is” (Peter Miller, Swarm Theory, National Geographic, July, 2007, p. 132).

Every now and again bee colonies have to make a vital decision — after outgrowing

their quarters or running out of available food resources they need to find a suitable new site. How a hive of thousands of moronic bees can decide which of a number of potential sites reconnoitered by scouts would make the best new home so impressed some students of the phenomenon that they use the method employed by bees as a pattern for decision-making in their department at the University of California, Riverside (Miller, p. 138).

Investigators have coined the term “swarm intelligence” to describe the ability of colonies of creatures to efficiently allocate tasks among individuals or to make major decisions affecting the entire colony. The basic principle behind swarm intelligence lies in individuals following simple rules. For instance, many ants send out scouts in the morning to look for food. These scouts follow a simple rule — when they find food, they return to the nest. If lots of scouts find food, then lots of scouts return to the nest. Workers in the nest react to a simple rule — if they bump into x number of returning scouts in y seconds, they head on out to join the foraging frenzy. The bottom line is, “that no leadership is required” (Miller, p. 132), just as Solomon emphasized.

Just how the coordination of behavior among thousands of individual insects evolved raises stupendous problems for evolution theory. Theory says that evolutionary change depends upon the outcome of natural selection working on accidental mutations. How on earth can a “rule of behavior” that is recognized by every individual in a colony suddenly come into being where it previously had not been? If that question cannot be satisfactorily answered, how much less can the next logical question — how can more than one rule of behavior, each of which works in concert with the other, suddenly appear? Many species depend on three or four such rules working in harmony. Take away any one, and the result is doom, doom, doom. The whole idea of evolution is madness, sheer madness.

Solomon's amazing insight into ant behavior illustrates a remarkable truth — Scripture is scientifically sound. You need to read the Dawn to Dusk book Jacob's Multi-colored Dream Goats.


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