Low-Hanging Fruit: Consider the Ant

But first, arachnids.  Some spiders somehow fly by using silken threads.  They’ve been detected at altitudes over 4 km, and more than a thousand miles from land.  The usual notion is that these threads catch air currents, but that may not be the real explanation.  For one thing, they seem to be able to take off fairly rapidly in a dead calm. It looks instead as if these spiders manage to impart a negative charge to these threads  and are then  propelled upward by the atmospheric electric field – electrostatic levitation,  a totally novel mechanism for flight.

Which ought to be a reminder that biomimetics is a useful approach to invention:  If you can’t think of anything yourself, steal from the products of evolution.  It’s like an an Edisonian approach, only on steroids.

Along those lines, it is well known, to about 0.1% of the population, that some ants have agriculture. Some protect and herd aphids: others gather leaves as the feedstock for an edible fungus. Those leaf-cutting ants also carry symbiotic fungicide-producing  bacteria that protect against weed fungi [ herbicides invented well before atrazine or 2-4D]  Speaking of, if you really, really want to cause trouble, introduce leaf-cutting ants to Africa.

Some ants even farm themselves In part of the Southwest, there is a species of ants that has an odd reproductive pattern.  The reproductive castes are all AA or BB, while all the workers are AB.  It seems that two related species merged: the queens and  drones are all one species or the other, but the workers are hybrids.  I strongly suspect that those hybrid workers are more productive, just  like mules….

The point is that insects were farming before we were: they were using particular strategies useful in agriculture that we only began using fairly recently.  For example, the fungus-growing termites of the old-world tropics raise a single fungal clone – which works better, because  competition between multiple lineages selects for fungi that are better at competition, rather than being better at turning grass into termite food.  In much the same way, rice (and wheat) get taller in order to compete for light with other rice genotypes – being tall doesn’t help produce more rice.  On the contrary.  So breeding for short strains of wheat and rice – removing useless competition – was an important strategy in the Green Revolution.

There is an obvious metastrategy: if  we know of a number of cases in which insect agriculturalists have long pursued useful strategies that we have only figured out recently, they are undoubtedly  also pursuing useful agricultural strategies that no human has ever conceived of.  Sure, it’s intellectual property theft, but what are the chances that they’ll sue?  Even if they do, you can just step on them.

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37 Responses to Low-Hanging Fruit: Consider the Ant

  1. Great! A superlative essay! I used to watch ants’ agricultural practices in Uruguay, and they made better use of the land than humans until tractors came along, when humans finally got an edge. However, I think that the key skill ants possess which we most need to mimic is control of traffic jams. Everything gets sorted out quickly, whatever the obstacles. I know, because I used to provide them, long before I realized that Dick Feynman had already done the basic work.

    • Gilbert P says:

      I met a mathematics professor who was moonlighting as an OR consultant in the rail industry. He claimed to have complex rail network conflict resolution algorithms based on what he called ‘ant path heuristics’. Predictably, the railwaymen couldn’t comprehend his methods, and he refused to explicate, being obsessed with IP control. Real world operations managers tend to prefer the simple binary: ‘On time / Not my fault’.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      I read a lot of science related blogs and to be honest they are usually humorless, too highly focused to be interesting to anyone but a small audience, and rather dreary. I still gloss over them but unless there is a breaking science related news story breaking, I am not too interested. But Cochran has the writers spark in him, a bit of the H L Menken or Mike Royko touch. I used to think that Cochran was just blogging between books but now I’m not so sure. Maybe the well crafted essay still has a place in this world even after the newspapers have dropped like fall leaves. Another outstanding essay, you might just have found your niche.

  2. Handle says:

    We constantly hear three environmental criticisms of ‘industrial farming’ practices:
    1. Monoculture is bad (and too risky a strategy should a novel disease appear on the scene)
    2. Application of -icide chemicals is bad
    3. Genetic modification is bad
    All reflect that we are ‘out of harmony with nature’.
    Nevertheless, the farming ants practice all 3. Monoculture of their fungus, fungicide for competing weed fungi, and the long-term version of 3 through co-evolution breeding.

    Are the ants out of harmony with nature? What would E.O. Wilson say?

    • reiner Tor says:

      Breeding is different from genengineering. It has different properties on many levels, for example allows for the co-evolution of breeder and bred, is less optimized (with breeding you have to make compromises), allows for somewhat more diversity (GM incurs large overhead R&D costs, with little unit costs, which means there will be a few near-monopolies, so unlike the monoculture with many competing strains of breeds we will have a monoculture of clones), and some similar effects.

      “Natural” just means something that’s withstood the test of time, whereas “artificial” means something that we just invented (and thus has a high chance of having as yet unidentified problems down the road).

    • engleberg says:

      In the good old days, ants lived on giant flying epiphytes who inflated their hydrogen bladders and took the ants wherever Nature’s beautiful harmonies were most melodious. Then, the greedy bastards invented agriculture and ate their bladders.

      It just logically follows.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “The reproductive castes are AA or BB”. Shouldn’t drones be A- or B-? What species is this? This of course suggests an interesting possibility for the evolution of haplodiploidy in the first place.

    • misdreavus says:

      Haploidiploidy only determines sex among members of the order hymenoptera, not necessarily caste.

      It is more frequently the case that worker ants are haploid (and male), but I believe there are more than a few species where at least some the drones are diploid. Can’t think of any off the top of my head, however.

      By the way, what is the name of that species of ant in the southwest?

      • mindfuldrone says:

        Are you sure about this? Most (all?) hymenoptera workers are female–nonreproductive. I’m only really familiar with bees close to but they are haploid-diploid. The males come from unfertilised eggs. A lot of people confuse “drone” with “worker”.

      • misdreavus says:

        you’re right. should have made that distinction.

      • misdreavus says:

        Just saw the gaping error in my first comment. Oops.

        Shit why’d I ever say that worker ants are male? Worker ants and bees are almost always female. Knew that from the time I saw a kid. Eusociality would not be possible with the alternate arrangement.

      • Richard Sharpe says:

        That would suggest that two copies of one or more genes is required to turn on the female developmental pathways, while only one copy turns on male pathways.

      • Gilbert P says:

        ‘A lot of people confuse “drone” with “worker”.’

        Not those who know their Wodehouse.

    • misdreavus says:

      Haven’t read that paper yet, but are there any more examples like this in the literature? Is r still 3/4 among sibling drones?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Yes, the males are haploid.

  4. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    To paraphrase someone recently, “Next you will tell me ants invented religion!”

  5. observer says:

    In my opinion, intellectual right protection is really obstacle to the development. Intellectual renaissance needs free follow of ideas like early days of internet (open platform).

    BTW, Razib Khan starts imitating your writing style. Not sure that is good idea for him.

  6. Anonymous says:

    …this might be off-topic here, but there’s this concept from this blog, that expensive stuff is expected to be finely tuned, and that having a less efficient brain would cause evolution towards a smaller brain.

    But smart people are so vastly smarter than dumb people. A smart person picks up on something in seconds that a dumb person would study for hours in order to merely recite verbatim. African brains aren’t that much smaller than European brains, for the one standard deviation IQ difference.

    Does this imply that what we consider to be intelligence only started evolving recently?

    • albatross says:

      Try teaching chimps to speak English or do addition or read–all things the great majority of humans can learn to do, but that no other animals can manage. Smart and dumb humans can be distinguished by some tasks, but they’re quite specialized.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Try teaching chimps to speak English

        Ah ha. There are quite a few Af Ams who have problems with that.

    • whatevar says:

      The difference in brain size between Africans and Europeans is also about one standard deviation, so you’re not making a lot of sense.

  7. Patrick Boyle says:

    This remark is off topic for this specific posting but is otherwise relevant.

    I cited you and Dr. Harpending in a little video I published on YouTube yesterday. I did not attribute my exact hypothesis to you but some people may make that connection. If so I apologize.

    I intend to publish one video a week. I have one in development that references Steve Sailer but again only I am responsible for the things I say. I am a bit freer than you guys. I’m open to ideas for future movies. Next week I publish one called ‘Obama’s Brain’ on the triune brain theory. The week after that I have one on the biology of black violence.

    • feministx says:

      This is also off topic, but I am having real mental problems after being assaulted by an African man last night. I have constant paranoia now whenever I go outside. It’s really quite unnerving.

      Has anyone been through this? Can you offer suggestions on how to cope? I am posting this here because I think people will commiserate me. I wrote about it on my blog and will probably continue to vent about this for days as I appear to be suffering from rather distressing mental damage.


      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Get a Glock. Learn to use it. Carry it all the time.

        If you have to shoot someone, tell the cops you were afraid for your life.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “Can you offer suggestions on how to cope?”

        Imagine the incident in your mind except with you winning somehow. Once you’ve come up with a viable scenario e.g. going into a women’s clothing store and standing by the manager or stabbing him in the eye with a sharpened pencil you keep in your purse, then repeatedly re-run that modified version over the real memory.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        Dont get a Glock. Focus on the positive, when you asked for help a number of other men came to your assistance. 90% of men are made instantly furious when a large male tries to intimidate a women, and they will intercede on your behalf. It is best to think of this asshole as mentally unbalanced rather than black, because that is where his problem came from.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Clearly, Dave wants women to remain dependent on men for their safety.

      • feministx says:

        Thanks everyone.

        GW, I am replaying the scenario with the police actually responding and taking the fellow to jail. This is what I wished happened.

        David, ultimately I agree with you. I am not comfortable with a gun. I think it may be better for me to just stay in crowded areas (which is what most women do) and then yell for help if I need it. I didn’t really even have to yell on Wednesday. People really wanted to help me just by observing the situation.

  8. md says:

    I am afraid that to recognize ant’s low hanging fruit, one would already have an insight about it it beforehand. In orther words, the low hanging fruit is not hanging that low. Like, can you name two? (I know nothing about ants – what’s your excuse?)

  9. Sandgroper says:

    The spiders are just copying Kumi’s hair.

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  11. Pingback: Consider the Ant | Brown Pundits

  12. Thiago Ribeiro says:

    “Some spiders somehow fly by using silken threads. They’ve been detected at altitudes over 4 km, and more than a thousand miles from land.”

    I guess it is a stupid question, but how were they detected?

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