There was recently a news article about how ant colonies seem to remember information about events or information regarding trails over a time period that exceeds the lifespan of any particular member of the colony. In other words the present iteration of the colony had information about past events communicated to them from the members of a past iteration of the colony. On one hand this is not so surprising but on the other hand the methods of this information being communicated across time might be interesting.

For humans, we use a combination of methods to communicate information across time and space such as writing, speaking, and demonstration. There are more ways to communicate across time and space than these and the fact that, what we might consider to be, lower level organisms have little trouble doing so implies that some of these techniques, though not primary in humans, might also be at play for us. This is a curious thing for me.

In the case of the ants, it was discovered by a Finnish myrmecologist, a scientist who studies ants, that when spring comes and the ants leave their colonies in earnest, an older ant will literally show a younger ant the trails it usually followed before dying. The younger ant adopts the trail as its own and so as a whole the colony will remember the trails that the previous members of the colony knew. The trails are always changing and expanding in a pattern that might look familiar to someone who has worked on machine learning algorithms or who has seen an amoeba searching for food. Interestingly, the longer the colony has been around the wiser the colony as a whole tends to behave with regards to foraging. An old colony does not mean that the individuals within the colony are older, just that their queen has survived for a long while. The implication is clear.

Human societies of various scales have been around for thousands of years of recorded history and it is of course very clear when people have benefited and when people have suffered due to the mistakes of our own societies’ pasts. At least in the West, many people tend to find themselves disconnected from their past in some way or another. Either they lack enough data or they have simply rejected past data since they think they know that the data currently being gathered, presumably using the scientific method, is one that is far superior to the data gathered by the past members of our societies. Is this really the case?

Certainly there have been habits and trends in recent human history that we know we might laugh at and see as preposterous such as bloodletting, which is to make a person bleed in order to cure them, or other various incantations and remedies that have not held up to the scrutiny of modern science. We think that we are in a kind of golden era of knowledge. This is of course true in many ways but it also has led many in the younger generations to throw away as much of their heritage and familial habits as they can in favor of adopting those they see as better. I think the unmoving body of culture is inherently dead at any given moment and for it to not rot it must be reanimated with new blood. Despite that way of thinking, it seems to me that we are quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater and we are at risk of having to relearn lessons that our collective human colony has learned but forgotten in a more ancient past.



in earnest (idiom) ? to do something to a great extent and/or with sincere intention
forage (v) ? search for food
preposterous (adj.) ? ridiculous or against common sense
incantation (n) ? a series of words such as in a magic spell or charm
scrutiny (n) ? critical observation or examination
throw the baby out with the bathwater (idiom) ? to discard something valuable along with other things that are undesirable