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jwb 05-30-2021 03:47 PM


Originally Posted by Guybrush (Post 2174862)

Most biologists would generally say that an anthill is comprised of selfish individuals that cooperate in a way so that everyone benefits. Or even more accurately, a group of cooperating selfish genes that use ants as their vehicles to take them into the future. This is generally what you would expect to emerge from natural selection.

Where that is not readily apparent and animals seem to act in an altruistic manner, there generally are interesting explanations why that is, such as the aforementioned haplodiploidi. A gene that increases the fitness of other genes at the expense of its own fitness will get weeded out over time by natural selection. Hence, altruism, while it may appear for various reasons, is not stable, but selfishness is. For general evolutionary theory, that should be the basic expectation. [B]What looks like altruism tends to be either selfishness in disguise, a misplaced gamble or a selfish strategy in a situation which it is no longer ideally adapted to, making it altruistic and unstable.

I think some of the confusion comes from the language being used. To describe 'genes' as selfish is very different than to describe a person as selfish. Yet the later is the way we understand that term colloquially.

Like for example EO Wilson brings up how ants are programmed to leave the nest and die alone if they are injured, to no longer burden the colony with maintaining their existence. This is the exact opposite of what humans refer to as selfishness if you are breaking it down based on the best interest of the individual. It's clearly not in that individual ant's best interest. It's a sacrificial act that benefits the colony as a whole. You might say it benefits the specific genes the ant is carrying but then again, genes have no real agency and thus when we describe them as "selfish" it means something very different from the common parlance.


For ants, science seem to say their ancestors were monogamous and this (along with haplodiploidity and a few other factors) would promote evolution into eusociality. When polygamy arises as a later characteristic, it can mean that eusociality is no longer stable and that these colonies are in fact being invaded and disrupted by selfish, exploitative strategies as we speak.
I have to say I'm not that clear on the distinction between monogamy and polygamy in ants. As far as I understand one queen typically lays all the eggs so are you saying that in the case of polygamous ants she is impregnated by multiple drones and lays eggs from each of them??? Or how does that work?

Marie Monday 05-30-2021 03:49 PM


Originally Posted by jwb (Post 2174886)
Are these really the best puns musicbANTer can come up with?

don't ANTagonise me pal

unrelated fun fact: the Dutch word for nitpicking literally translates as antf*cking and I think it's a shame other languages haven't followed that excellant example


Originally Posted by jwb (Post 2174890)
I have to say I'm not that clear on the distinction between monogamy and polygamy in ants. As far as I understand one queen typically lays all the eggs so are you saying that in the case of polygamous ants she is impregnated by multiple drones and lays eggs from each of them??? Or how does that work?

so basically ant queens are huge sluts, which means they're also Queen of Thots? My cosmic connection to ants gets stronger the more I learn about them

The Batlord 05-30-2021 04:12 PM

Is prostitution a thot crime?

Marie Monday 05-30-2021 04:50 PM


Neapolitan 05-30-2021 05:05 PM


Originally Posted by Marie Monday (Post 2174899)

Thought/thot crime. The Batlord is the ANTithesis of a comedian.

Marie Monday 05-30-2021 05:17 PM

these puns are becoming an embarassmant

Guybrush 05-30-2021 05:24 PM


Originally Posted by jwb (Post 2174834)
That's interesting and i honestly hadn't gotten into the specific math behind the genetics involved but my general impression initially was that the entire colony exists essentially as an extension of the queen. As I understand it, basically the queen is the reproducing agent and the workers exist only to assist in said reproduction. Though depending on the species this distinction can be more or less clear than in others.
In some species, IIRC, the other females aren't even sterile they just tend not to reproduce.


Then there are even more erusocial species of ants where the other female worker and soldier ants are just sterile and physically incapable of reproducing directly. In these species, the existence of the entire colony as an extension of the queen's reproduction apparatus seems more pronounced.

To me, and as mentioned, it makes most sense to think of an anthill as a collection of selfish genes. I'm a little unsure how much to get into as the gene's eye view of evolution is rather a big topic, but perhaps that can be delved into deeper in a follow up. Suffice to say, genes are a bit like programs coding for ants. They tell the hosts/vehicles/robots (ants) what shape to develop into and what to behave like. If a gene is good at helping to make robots that it copies of itself can exist inside, then that gene will become numerous. If it is bad at this, it will become rarer and likely go extinct. This you already know, of course.

So it's easy to think that a gene that makes an animal more fertile or stronger might have a fitness benefit and do well in natural selection. But there is another important way for genes to be successful. Imagine that there was a gene that acted in such a manner that it took care of other individuals in which that gene also existed. Let's say such a gene finds itself existing inside two individuals. It could make those two individuals cooperate. In a world where everyone's an island, two individuals suddenly cooperating might be very competitive and give such a gene a huge fitness advantage. And when that gene's vehicles become more, the number of cooperative individuals increase, the strategy might even become better, doing progressively better in an environment that it itself is changing to its benefit.

So instead of increasing fitness merely by bettering the vehicle it finds itself in, a gene can also increase its fitness by making its vehicle cooperate with other individuals that are also likely to carry a copy of itself, such as close kin (hence the word kin selection). Forgoing one's own reproduction for the sake of helping another reproduce may seem extreme, but from the point of view of a gene, it can make just as much sense - or even more - than just chasing sex.

So for a gene finding itself inside an ant, there are some possible scenarios with following risks / trade-offs:
  • Ends up in a male. This is high risk as males fly away from their colonies. Likely, the gene will just die with the ant BUT if the ant has sex, it can make a lot of copies of itself
  • Ends up in a queen. Much like males, this is a high risk profession which will likely lead to death by bird or something similar, but also with a small chance of making lots of copies of itself
  • Ends up in a worker/soldier. Much less risk - they don't fly off so stay relatively safe in numbers. Although they don't stand to gain as much fitness as founding a new colony would, they are likely to get to increase their fitness in a myriad of ways by indirectly helping to make sure the queen makes more babies. Any female sibling is ~75% likely to hold a copy of that gene, so for the gene, an added sister is even better than a baby.

So for a single gene, it's not a given that it's better for a gene to find itself in a queen compared to a worker. Actually, being a worker is often probably the best strategy, also from a selfish (gene-centered) point of view.

Also, because queens come about by nurture rather than nature (by diet), you might make the case that the workers create queens (to whom they are 75% related) to go out and spread the workers' genes even further. Queens require more food, so this is something they might do more of if food is plenty. Again, queen seems like it might not be the right word for what they are.

I should perhaps reiterate that while sisters are not always 75% related on average today, it seems they were in the hymenopteran lineages back in the day when eusociality evolved.


Originally Posted by jwb
I remember seeing a documentary where there were some worker ants in such a colony that would attempt to start laying their own eggs and they would be physically restrained and prevented from doing so by other worker ants.

EDITED as I've read up on this. So workers may sometime produce their own males by laying unfertilized eggs.

IF the colony is polygamous, sisters may no longer reliably know their relatedness to other workers sons (if they have the same father, it will on average be 37,5% (75%/2). If they have different fathers, it will be 12,5%).

In that situation, kin selection theory seems to predict that both queen and workers should prefer the males coming from the queen rather than from other workers not themselves. Hence, the expectation is workers policing other worker's reproduction if the colony is polygamous.


Originally Posted by jwb
Now I'm seeing documentaries where there are super colonies that adopt multiple queens cohabitating and combining resources despite not being related genetically. The strategic advantages of these kinds of super colonies can be staggering. The kinds of numbers that can be produced can completely decimate any rival colonies nearby.

Essentially, ants have a specific scent based on certain pheromones that allow them to detect members of the same colony vs rival colonies. Typically if two ants from seperate colonies come into contact a war will ensure, even if they are the same species. But now there are super colonies where that isn't happening. Either they aren't acknowledging the scent or the scent is being altered somehow to be similar - I can't remember the exact mechanics of it but essentially the result is the colonies don't go to war and instead start cooperating as if they were members of the same colony.

I don't know what the current favoured explanations are for supercolonies, but I would expect that different colonies of ants working together might evolve if that is a better strategy than warring. We humans are great at this and ants could be too. However, I would not expect the bolded part (though it might be hyperbole and not to be taken exactly as written).

The reason is simple. Lets say you have a super colony consisting of 6 colonies with 6 queens. Let's say they all share food and all feed each others queens, take care of each others babies, etc. Let's arbitrarily say that in colony 4, the queen has a genetic mutation that makes her babies on average do less work on behalf of the other colonies that make up the supercolonies. Colony 4 would then have workers that are more focused on the wellbeing of colony 4 while simultaneously being cared for by the other colonies.

So basically, what you're proposing is not a situation I would think was stable, because it would be vulnerable to getting invaded by an exploitative strategy. Once such a strategy appeared, it would likely do better than the other strategies and potentially drive them to extinction. In the case above, colony 4 would probably have larger food stores, would produce more queens and they in turn would spread the exploitative mutation and outcompete the friendlier varieties.

Hence, though I might be wrong, I would expect the 6 colonies to cooperate in a more limited fashion. Although all colonies cooperate, there would be higher levels of cooperation inside each sub-colony.


Originally Posted by jwb
The reason why i even gained such an interest in ants in the first place is not even due to the genetic factor of how traits are selected for but rather just down to the nature of intelligence in a colony. I think the term is collective swarm intelligence. They make decisions as a colony not based on a top down hierarchy, but from disparate nodes on a network sending signals to one another that allow the colony as a whole to function.

As such, the individual is dispensable. This is why they look so alien to us. They have a sophisticated intelligence with no conscious agent. They can make complex decisions as a colony that no individual ant can make. An individual ant is little more than a robot programmed through evolution to sustain the colony. That is how I conceptualize it at least. I'm not a scientist.

I wouldn't say it's to sustain the colony, but rather to further its own genes. It's just these two goals have a lot in common and may be nearly indistinguishable from the outside. Otherwise, I think this is a great way of thinking about it.

Also, because ants are simple, they are also vulnerable. The genes may be constrained in a way by what ants can do. They're smart, but not super computers. A nice example of this are various insects and other creatures exploiting ants. There are various Myrmecophiles, non-ants that live inside ant hills. Several of these are in some way capable of giving off the right pheromones, thus tricking the ants into thinking they are part of the colony.

You probably also know of slave-keeping ants that raid other colonies and steal the babes. The babes, growing up with their captors, will follow their programming and tend to their captives' colony.

This is also important when trying to understand kin selection for ants. The way they know if someone is kin and likely to share their genes is by smell.. but as a system, it is quite simple and easily fooled/exploited. The system being prone to error could also be part of the explanation why ants do certain things that don't seem as selfish as they should be, optimally. If such errors were big enough, there would be a lot of evolutionary pressure on evolving a better system, but there might be some constraints to such evolution. The topic of constraints might be worth covering in a later post.


Originally Posted by jwb
In fact I was watching a documentary last night where a supercolony of wood ants with multiple queens, some of the queen ants being dragged back down into the nest against their will. The queen doesn't call the shots. The colony acts as a collective entity more akin to an organism.

All the worker ants have their fitness invested in their queens, so it makes sense they wouldn't let them act crazy :)


Originally Posted by jwb
That once again highlights my interest with regard to the nature of intelligence. I think as humans we have a certain bias towards our own type of intelligence which is based on advanced cognition in a single individual that is capable of perceiving the world in very complex ways.

It seems very unlikely there is anything that could be construed as any sort of advanced 'perception' when speaking about ants. Individually the cognitive processes must be very primitive compared to higher-order mammals etc.

Yet in terms of the capacity to make complex decisions with a high degree of flexibility and adaptability such as where to find food, where and how to make a nest and regulate everything from its temperature to the resources necessary to keep it thriving, these colonies obviously display a certain level of intelligence that is not even reliant on what we would conceptualize as perception.

Such as in the case of the wood ant colony referenced above, the entire colony was sunbathing in order to harvest heat from the sun to bring back down into the nest in order to regulate the temperature. That is why the queens were brought out in the open and once they were warm enough, were brought back under whether they wanted to go willingly or not.

Maybe this decentralized structure is what makes them so resilient. In any case it's something that attracts my interest as it presents a sort of polar opposite approach to intelligence as opposed to the way human beings approach it.

To us, the idea of creating let's say an advanced AI is pretty much synonymous with creating an entity that is capable of the same sort of individualized cognition that human beings are capable of. We hardly even consider the prospect of disparate nodes on a network that are more or less completely unaware and primitive in terms of intelligence on an individual level but collectively allow for the emergent property of an advanced yet unconscious form of intelligence to manifest.

I agree with you - it's really interesting. Incidentally, I have seen a couple or more attempts at making swarms of robots that interact much like ants. I believe the last one I saw took inspirations from ants making an ant-bridge across water.

I'm off to bed, but I might find a link tomorrow :)

Marie Monday 05-30-2021 05:38 PM

I love how this thread is 50% intelligent biology discussion and 50% demented ant jokes. It captures the MB spirit well

Guybrush 05-30-2021 06:12 PM


Originally Posted by Marie Monday (Post 2174907)
I love how this thread is 50% intelligent biology discussion and 50% demented ant jokes. It captures the MB spirit well

It's great :love:

While I love biology, it's not every day I get to bore other people with it.

elphenor 05-30-2021 06:13 PM

jwb like a textbook speaking that biology
drawing comparisons and ****, sociology
hands down his pants bust a nut to ants, no apology

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