via Ran Prieur, a brilliant article looking at how ant colonies have been perceived by civilised people, looking for excuses for the hierarchy, domination, coercion, division of labour etc prevalent in their societies. It turns out that ants DON'T live in strict, quasi-totalitarian colonies, but in fact actually have much more freedom to shift roles according to their individual strengths which change over time, and also according to collective estimations of the particular work that needs doing at that moment in time:
Here's the key passage, but I recommend reading the whole thing for a bunch of fascinating insights and pointers to other possibilities in human social organisation:
What I and others have found, instead, is that the collective process of task allocation in ant colonies is based on networks of simple interactions. For example, in harvester ants, colonies regulate foraging activity, adjusting the numbers of ants currently out searching for seeds to the amount of food available. An outgoing forager does not leave the nest until it meets enough returning foragers coming back with food. This creates a simple form of positive feedback: the more food is available, the more quickly foragers find it, and the more quickly they return to the nest, eliciting more foraging. When I provide a windfall of food by placing a lovely little pile of organic millet outside the colony, ants that formerly performed other tasks switch to become foragers. Each encounter, in the form of a brief antennal contact, has no meaning to the ant, but in the aggregate, the rate of encounters determines how many ants are currently foraging.
The system that ant colonies use to organise their work is a distributed process. Like division of labour, distributed processes can take different forms. A distributed process is not the opposite of division of labour – but it’s different in important ways. Primarily, in a distributed process, there is never central control, while in division of labour there might be. A leader can tell one citizen to make candles and another to make shoes. In a distributed process this would happen through local interactions, for example with people who want to buy candles or shoes – creating demand that is filled by an entrepreneur who then meets the demand.
At least in the short term, a system organised by a distributed process and one organised by division of labour could look the same: the same individuals could do the same task over and over. An ant might do the same task day after day. It might go out to forage, come back to the nest, engage again in the interactions that stimulate it to forage, and spend the night among other ants that recently returned from foraging. The next morning, it is again in a situation in which it is likely to forage, and this could continue day after day. However, in different conditions, the ant might do another task, and so its role is not fixed.
Distributed processes and division of labour can both be effective, but they don’t function in the same way. For division of labour, specialisation can lead to better work. By contrast, in a distributed process, the fact that individuals are interchangeable makes the whole system more robust and more resilient. If the individual who performs a task gets lost or becomes unfit to do it, another can step in. The individuals don’t have to be all alike, but the differences among them are not large enough to affect the viability of the system. Most fathers might not be as good at changing diapers as most mothers but, at 3am, the finer points of technique don’t matter. If anyone changes the diaper, the baby goes back to sleep.
Next up: do yeast cells or cancer cells actually behave like people say they do - acquisitive, ruthless, bent on growth at all costs even to the point of mass suicide - or is that just another projection from the sick psyche of the civilised?
PS: the part of this original post where I said 'You never see animals snoozing for half the day, slacking off or foraging lazily & peaceably with their peers' has been bothering me because a later episode of the 'Life Story' documentary showed chimps doing exactly that: peaceably harvesting water lillies or something similar from a pond in a jungle clearing. Oops! Still, I think the overall point about carefully selected 'dramatic' footage in nature docs being used to justify human oppressive systems still stands. The whole competitive, 'nature red in tooth and claw' business, as lots have pointed out better than me.