Lessons From the Anternet: What Ants and Computers Have in Common

A new book reveals that these insects, even with their tiny brains, are almost as socially complex as humans.


In his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, the great myrmecologist and evolutionary theorist Edward O. Wilson comments at several points on animals with especially complex social behavior. Leading that parade: human beings. A close second: leafcutter ants. It might seem odd that tiny ants, with their necessarily tiny brains, could rival humans in the sophistication of their social order, but it turns out, the science of emergent behavior has shown, that the consistent following of very simple rules can produce exceptionally complicated actions—rather like computers do. Or, to be more precise, exactly as computers do.

Consider this report from Stanford University:

On the surface, ants and the Internet don't seem to have much in common. But two Stanford researchers have discovered that a species of harvester ants determine how many foragers to send out of the nest in much the same way that Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for the transfer of data. The researchers are calling it the "anternet."

Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, has been studying ants for more than 20 years. When she figured out how the harvester ant colonies she had been observing in Arizona decided when to send out more ants to get food, she called across campus to Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of computer science at Stanford and an expert on how files are transferred on a computer network. At first he didn't see any overlap between his and Gordon's work, but inspiration would soon strike.

"The next day it occurred to me, 'Oh wait, this is almost the same as how [Internet] protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!'" Prabhakar said. "The algorithm the ants were using to discover how much food there is available is essentially the same as that used in the Transmission Control Protocol."

It's one thing, and remarkable enough, to say that ants and the internet both employ communications protocols: but essentially the same protocols? Now that's amazing.

But perhaps we shouldn't be wholly surprised. No one knows when and how the Fibonacci sequence was discovered, but it provides one of the key mathematical ratios of the natural world. Closely related to the Fibonacci sequence is the "golden ratio" or "golden section", which may repeatedly be found in nature but is also foundational to a wide range of arts forms, from architecture to book design.

It would be fascinating enough to think that we human beings, in our most complex actions and achievements, speak a cognate language to that of the rest of nature; but as discoveries like that of the "anternet" show, more often than not it's the same language. Which should fill us with wonder—but perhaps also with a sense of accountability to all those countless millions of creatures that speak our native tongue.