Insects Solving Inequality

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Traffic jams have a way of bringing out the worst in people. Not only are human beings inefficient machine operators, but they have wicked tempers, too. Cluster a group of cars on the highway and it won’t be long before impatience, anger, and vulgarity come into play.

Human beings experience these issues in traffic because when it comes down to it, we’re thinking of ourselves. Sure, there might be some faraway worry or empathy toward the victim of some accident that may lie up ahead, but we know that likely the slowdown is due to persistent rubbernecking, and that’s frustrating as all hell.

We just want to get where we’re going as quickly as possible, and everyone else can shove off. Perhaps that’s human nature.

But not all animals experience selfish emotions when faced with an obstacle like high traffic density—in fact, some thrive towards more selfless behaviors. A study published in The Science of Nature found that ants become more efficient during greater rates of traffic, increasing their speed by 50 percent.

Christina Hoenicke, one of the study’s co-authors, observed ants for several weeks by videotaping their trails and analyzing the frames. She explains that due to their considerable degree of social behavior, ants act on behalf of one another rather than in service of only themselves.

“Ants are eusocial and altruistic, which means the individuals work together irrespective of their own advantage,” Hoenicke tells BTRtoday. “In the case of traffic, the ants give way to one another and do not jostle.”

Imagining the implementation of ant-like traffic efficiency is difficult in the face of human egoism. Our psychology and technology evolve to make us increasingly independent, whereas ants remain interdependent on one another to live.

“Nearly the whole behavioral display of ants is influenced by their group communication,” Hoenicke explains. “Ants are not able to live alone. By contact of antennae or smelling the pheromone trails of other ants, they estimate the density of other ants around them and speed up when it’s higher.”

Ants self-organize trails, which means they create optimal pathways in width and otherwise—something that isn’t easily replicated within the confines of our cars on defined road ways.

“Human traffic underlies restrictions,” Hoenicke explains. “Nobody would be happy if the street were widened into their garden. We have to stay on the asphalt, whereas ants widen their trail.”

Despite the inherence of human egoism and our species’ lack of other eusocial characteristics such as pheromone trails, there are progresses in technology and systematic thinking that are beginning to simulate the processes of the natural world to the benefit of human wellbeing.

“New navigation systems use a kind of pheromone trail algorithm to calculate the density of traffic, so redirections can be advised before a traffic jam occurs,” Hoenicke exemplifies. “In times of smart, self-driving cars with navigational systems, humans might mimic ant traffic on the trails.”

Imitating or integrating natural systems for human health and well-being is the crux of the growing field of ecological economics. Whereas conventional economics view an increasing gross domestic product (GDP) as desirable and beneficial for all people; ecological economics employs the perspective that monetary capital is not the primary end to achieve overarching species well-being.

Being self-interested and profit driven are the main characteristics setting humans apart from other species, and the collective nature of ecological economics aims to take this into account. The field focuses on four forms of capital—monetary or built capital, natural capital, social capital, and human capital.

While we as a species tend to focus solely on built capital as the standard for success, the other forms take into account the value gained through harnessing nature, creating positive social interaction, and emphasizing overall human health.

“It’s really a bridge across not only ecology and economics, but also psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and history,” ecological economics expert Robert Costanza told Yale Insights in 2010. “It’s an attempt to look at humans embedded in their ecological life-support system, not separate from the environment.”

Highly social insects such as ants and bees are easy examples to pull systems from because of their intrinsic interdependence, and their purposeful hierarchies. In Hoenicke’s study, for instance, inbound ants are considered more valuable due to information they retrieve along with the resources they carry. However, they only hold this importance because of their capacity to pass the information on to others within the colony.

In humanity, someone privy to beneficial information would likely be advised not to share it openly if there were a potential for profit. Regardless of what that information is, the person holding it has a leg up on everyone else, and our focus on GDP or individual gains encourages the use of it to his or her personal advantage, economically or otherwise.

Hoenicke, Costanza, and other proponents of ecological economics acknowledge the difficulty in overriding centuries of human desire of self-interest and profit in favor of a more collective mode of thinking. Ecological economics can easily be pigeon-holed into a category of socialism due to its emphasis on equal and fair distribution of resources and fail to be taken seriously in the capitalistic West.

Perhaps the most important perspective the field provides, though, is the idea that economics and other human endeavors, like any other subsystem on earth, is inextricably woven into a fabric of co-dependence with other humans and life forms on earth.

Human beings may never be as interconnected as the most social insect species, but given how long and efficiently ants have been operating, it may not hurt to expand our collective thinking.