Ants and anti-ants

In the “emergent democracy” happening, several participants drew analogies between emergent human behavior, like building cities, and the emergent behavior of social animals, like building ant colonies.
Several of us, include me, were vehemently opposed to drawing the analogy between humans and ants to closely.
Liz Lawley discusses this in her blog:

Key among [the concepts we discussed] was the rallying cry among several participants that “We are not ants!”
What does that mean? Well, we were discussing Steven Johnson’s book Emergence, in which he discusses the emergent behavior/intelligence in environments like ant colonies. The problem, several of us noted, is that ants do not have much self-awareness, while people do.

Here’s the expansion of the anti-ant position the I posted as a comment to Liz’ blog:

Liz, I was one of the anti-ant people.
The relevant distinction, I think, isn’t just that people have self-awareness. Consciousness is the starting point that makes human actions and decisions more complicated than those of ants.
The atoms of ant action are simple: pick up crumb, bring crumb to ant colony.
The atoms of human action are more complicated: identify people and groups interested in opposing Total Information Act, encourage people to persuade local congressperson.
The atoms of ant decisions are simple. Crumb smells like food. Pick up and bring to ant colony. Crumb smells like poison. Do not bring to ant colony.
The atoms of human decisions are more complicated. Safety doesn’t just mean avoiding crumb that smells like poison. Safety requires decisions in complex areas like “police work” and “diplomacy”.
Ants organize based on instinct and pheremones. Humans organize based on instinct and pheremones overlaid by complex cultural systems.
Organization tools that assume people are like ants will provide people tools to take very simple actions — vote yes or no on a question that someone else has articulated.
A politics that assumes people are like ants is likely to be totalitarian — manipulating people using instincts like greed and fear.
I think that any theory and support system for emergent human system needs to take into account the intelligence and complex behavior of the nodes in the network.

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