Philosophy Phriday: Ants and NGOs

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-fourth contribution in the series, submitted by Suzanne Kawamleh.

Ants and NGOs

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead 

I work for a non-profit organization that aims to provide higher education opportunities to civilians inside war torn Syria, Promise for Relief and Human Development. We have a few other aims as well. We hope to provide an alternative to joining any one of the armed or extremist groups actively recruiting young men and women. We wish to encourage critical thinking. We want our campuses to serve as community centers with public lectures on relevant social issues like prescription drug abuse and psychosocial concerns like PTSD in war-ravaged civilian populations. We have achieved this amidst one of the worst man-made disasters since World War II. Missile strikes, chemical weapons, beheadings, and sexual violence as a weapon of war are standard fare in Syria. And yet, our students attend seminars, form study groups, and sit in exams. It is a striking example of organization amidst chaos and violence, one of the most astonishing successes to take place within the borders of a failed state.

Organization amidst chaos and violence. Photo: PRHD

And yet, such accomplishments, in a sense, are not uncommon. Human communities have successfully been organizing themselves in structures that facilitate decision making and task achievement for a long time. As Margaret Mead notes, such communities of committed individuals have changed the world we live in, for better or worse – and it may be the only thing that ever has. In our organization, for example, we have a board of directors and an executive board with members assigned to particular positions and associated responsibilities. We have a clearly defined decision-making process, proposal template, evaluation scheme, and a common mission for our organization and vision of what we’re working towards. Though we may occasionally disagree on the best course of action to achieve our mission, we all agree on our mission being the decisive criterion by which we evaluate each project proposal and annual reports. And then we vote. Given the recognized shared aim and means of evaluation, structure of organization and assigned roles, it is not really that surprising that we have managed to achieve the tasks we have pursued, no matter how challenging.

Ants, on the other hand, have managed to change the world without any dull documents of incorporation or bylaws detailing the hierarchical structure that ordinarily facilitates human organizations’ decision making and collective action. Yet while an individual ant isn’t very intelligent, an ant colony can collectively build architectural wonders, partake in efficient communication systems, and display an astounding ability to defy predators. Such activity and accomplishment tends to be associated with either superhuman brilliance, rigid hierarchy, or programmed systems. Ant colonies are none of the above. They aren’t abnormally intelligent, nor do individual ants follow inflexible roles in a structured hierarchy. In fact, ants will perform different functions in response to environmental changes and shifting colony needs. A patroller will forage when the colony faces a food shortage, despite the inability of an ant to know how much food the colony collectively has or needs1. Rather, the ant responds to local chemical cues prompting it to switch tasks to foraging. How these individual ants manage to respond exactly and rapidly to changing colony conditions without a global view of colony needs is striking. All this is done without any sort of programming – a truly decentralized and bottom up system that emerges from a number of simple local interactions replicated over and over again in the life of a colony.

The colony exhibits collective action that achieves particular aims, yet the ants that make up a colony exhibit stochastic action and have no larger view of the colony’s state and no awareness of a deliberate plan or intention to which they contribute. Ant colonies are an ideal example of a self-organizing system where each individual ant follows a set of simple rules governing local interactions and feedback mechanisms amplify the effects giving rise to a complex structure at the level of the colony. The colony collectively manages to find the shortest distance between any two food sources, explores and identifies the best new living space for a colony, and organize themselves to optimally search for food in a given area effectively and while minimizing collisions and avoiding obstacles. Anyone who has sat in on a board meeting or conference call recognizes what an amazing feat this is. It is often difficult to get a dozen faculty members with a recognizable collective aim and global assessment of changing department needs to agree on anything in a two-hour meeting, much less on a moment’s notice. The situation is all too common in any context where a group of people need to decide to do something- whether a board meeting, a conference committee, or something as routine as a big family trying to negotiate where to have dinner. How are ants so good at it?

This organized colony is not sharing its secret to success. Photo: Alex Wild

Ant colonies are able to solve problems and make decisions collectively by using swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence is the “emergent collective intelligence of groups of simple agents”2. Ants may not be smart, but ant colonies are. Ant colonies act like a single super organism. An ant colony exercises swarm intelligence when it makes a decision about which is the best route to take, though no individual ant knows all the options available and no ant has the explicitly programmed solution. Rather ants take different routes and lay down pheromones as they proceed down a trail. The ant that took the shortest route will return quickly, laying more pheromones down on its way back which strengthens the chemical communication to other ants that this route is an attractive option3. Some ants may wander off and get lost leaving weak pheromone trails [it’s important that these rules are not deterministic]. As more ants successfully take the shorter route and return, the pheromone signal gets stronger, and more and more ants take that route by way of a positive feedback mechanism until the entire colony identifies this route as the optimal route to a food source. The optimal route was identified by means of simple rules such as “look for food until find pheromone trail” and “follow stronger pheromone trail” and “found food, lay pheromone on way back by same trail” and a positive feedback mechanism that ensures the more ants take a certain trail the more attractive that trail becomes until the colony converges on that trail being the optimal route to a food source. Using swarm intelligence, ant colonies successfully solve challenging problems like finding the shortest path to a food source.

Swarm intelligence in animal behavior includes cognitive elements like decision making or comparing nesting sites or optimizing foraging strategies according to the area of the site. An interdisciplinary field of swarm cognition has developed swarm intelligence into a model of distributed cognition as a means of facilitating analogies from insect sociality to brain dynamics4. Swarm cognition is the study of cognition as a self- organized distributed phenomenon. The analogy holds between individual neurons and individual ants or members of any natural swarm. No individual ant knows the shortest route to a food source, no individual neuron can think or hold abstract concepts. Yet, the interactions between ants and between ants and their environment give rise to an emergent phenomenon of swarm intelligence just as the interactions between millions of neurons and between neurons and their environment gives rise to a thinking brain, a mind. We can explain the cognitive activities of swarms by reference to ant-to-ant interactions and we can explain the cognitive activities of organisms like humans by reference to neuron-to-neuron interactions. Both neurons and ants work in a coordinated manner to accomplish tasks as part of the collective that go beyond anything they could accomplish individually. Variations on this analogy abound in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and ethology; the earliest, and perhaps most popular, is Douglas Hofstadter’s reference to neurons as the “brain’s ants” and his extended discussion in “Prelude… Ant Fugue”5.

Since then, swarm intelligence has grown as a multidisciplinary field with its own journal, conferences, and champions. However, it is not the only or even the main view among the various theories of cognition. An alternative and popular research program is that of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the view that cognition requires a body that interacts with other bodies and with the world in which it is situated. The notion of a detached brain carrying out cognitive activities and acting as central command is targeted here. An algorithm or computer or brain in a vat cannot think or cognize. Rather, part of what it means to think or to conceptualize is to do so within a body that is located in a particular environment and the details of that body’s experience with the world shape the person’s associated cognitive function and conceptualizations. Cognition doesn’t happen in your head. It happens out in the world when you move around and interact with other people and the world around you. On the other hand, there is significantly less agreement on what type of body is required. Sharkey and Ziemke6 delineate five different sorts of embodiment that are prevalent in the literature.

Swarm intelligence. Photo: Alex Wild

The interesting question is: what would it mean for there to be embodied distributed cognition? How do these two cognitive views relate? They’re both trying to challenge the traditional view of cognition in the brain and expand our views of intelligence. On the one hand, knowledge is beyond what’s in your head. It’s bodily and interactive and social. On the other hand, there is a type of knowledge that is beyond you as an individual and that emerges only from your local interactions as part of a collective, whereas embodied cognition emphasizes your situatedness as an agent to account for the cognitive elements of your behavior. When you are a member of a swarm, it seems like that emphasis on individual situatedness is both appealed to and downplayed. It is the embodied agent and their local interactions with nearby agents that set the stage for an emergent swarm intelligence. The local interactions by these situated agents is crucial. Then again, it’s just one ant amidst so many other ants, just one part of a whole that is so much greater. It’s the swarm that is intelligent, that has cognitive elements of interest, not the constitutive part. It’s the swarm and swarm behavior that matters. Yet, swarm intelligence is not possible absent the embodied cognition of the elements facilitating local interactions. The tension is palpable!

At some level, swarm cognition will lend support to some definitions of embodiment over others as we refine our theory of embodied cognition. There is the question of the embodiment of the individuals – what type of body is required for individual cognition – and there is the question of the embodiment of the swarm – what type of body is required for swarm cognition. If we accept the insights of swarm cognition, it has important implications on the development of embodied cognition. For example, it seems to rule out physical embodiment definitions of embodiment, while supporting historical or structural coupling definitions of embodiment. The embodied cognition view can also inform swarm cognitive views by highlighting environmental and embodied influences on collective behavior and interaction. At the level of the swarm, if we consider it a body, how does the structure of its body and the way it relates to its environment affect the emergent swarm cognition. At the level of the individual agents, such as the ants that make up the swarm, how do stigmergic cues where an ant communicates indirectly with another ant by changing something in the environment fit into the embodied cognition view? The local interactions give rise to swarm cognition, the ant manipulates this local interaction in some way. The body of the ant and the body of the swarm can prove challenging to uncouple. Further, the ant can intervene in the same process which affects its own embodied cognition.

As the theories of swarm cognition and embodied cognition approach scientific maturity and the body of related research grows, the embodied cognitive agents whose relations or interactions facilitate swarm cognition should be identified and the role of their embodiment defined. Just as the close study of ant interactions has been fruitful, a close study of these two different views on cognition would be similarly fruitful. Meanwhile, us humans will have to patiently endure Robert’s Rules and conference calls- at least until we join The Swarm.


1Gordon, Deborah, and Michelle Schwengel. Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized. The Free Press, 2011.

2Bonabeau, Eric, et al. Swarm Intelligence: from Natural to Artificial Systems. Oxford University Press, 2010.

3“How Ants Find Food.” MUTE: Simple, Anonymous File Sharing,

4Eberhart, Russell C., et al. Swarm Intelligence c: y Russell C. Eberhart, Yuhui Shi, James Kennedy. Morgan Kaufmann, 2001.

5Hofstadter, Douglas R., and Daniel Clement. Dennett. The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. Bantam Books, 1982.

6Ziemke, Tom. “Are Robots Embodied?” PDF,

SuzanneKawamlehSuzanne Kawamleh is both a PhD student in Philosophy and an MA student in History at Indiana University-Bloomington, as well as the Higher Education Program Director at Promise for Relief and Human Development. She is broadly interested in the intersection of epistemology and philosophy of science, particularly in the epistemology of scientific models, with a focus on climate models, error propagation, and decision making under uncertainty. When not thinking about philosophy, Kawamleh is working on providing higher education opportunities to internally displaced populations in war-torn Syria.