Thanks to Andy K. for sending me this article which reminded him of my Life in the Ant Farm post. From the article:
"The bug society: Scientists excavate underground ant city that 'rivals the Great Wall of China' with a labyrinth of highways
The community of ants – described as a ‘superorganism’ because of the way they coordinated themselves – carried out a Herculean task building their giant home.
The leaf-chewing creatures are understood to form the second most complex societies on Earth after our own."
The article is all about the amazing 3 min. video below. But as a quick introduction, here's an excerpt from my post:
Life in the Ant Farm
Did you ever have an ant farm when you were little? An ant farm makes the ants' behavior easily visible and controllable. They are imprisoned in a two-dimensional world in which their decisions are limited and their needs are met by you! They can only go side to side and up and down. And up usually leads them to the leaf you dropped into the ant farm for their lunch! But in the wild...
Ants form highly organized colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. These large colonies consist mostly of sterile wingless females forming castes of "workers", "soldiers", or other specialized groups. Nearly all ant colonies also have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more fertile females called "queens". The colonies are sometimes described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony. (Wikipedia: Ant)
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labor is highly specialized and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are the best-known example. The technical definition of a superorganism is "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective," phenomena being any activity "the hive wants" such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.
Superorganisms exhibit a form of "distributed intelligence," a system in which many individual agents with limited intelligence and information are able to pool resources to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the individuals.
Nineteenth century thinker Herbert Spencer coined the term super-organic to focus on social organization... Similarly, economist Carl Menger expanded upon the evolutionary nature of much social growth, but without ever abandoning methodological individualism. Many social institutions arose, Menger argued, not as "the result of socially teleological causes, but the unintended result of innumerable efforts of economic subjects pursuing 'individual' interests." (Wikipedia: Superorganism)
Methodological individualism does not imply political individualism, although methodological individualists like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper were opponents of collectivism. Detaching methodological individualism from political individualism... if a properly-functioning communist regime were to arise, it too would have to be sociologically understood on methodological individualist principles. (Wikipedia: Methodological Individualism)
Hopefully I didn't lose you yet. I know, I'm supposed to be distilling not mixing, but I needed to draw the connection between ants and economics. Did you get it? Ants are dumb little creatures by themselves. But even as dumb as they are, some are more skilled at smelling and finding food while others are better at fighting, and some others are really strong, for carrying food back to the colony for lunch.
And in a wild colony of ants these individuals end up specializing in what they do best which leads to a collective intelligence far greater than the intelligence of any individual ant...
And while we're on this subject, here's another must-read:
“I, Pencil” Revisited
By Sheldon Richman
Published: 16 January 2009
Leonard Read’s classic essay, “I, Pencil,” which is now 50 years old, is justly celebrated as the best short introduction to the division of labor and undesigned order ever written. Read saw an “extraordinary miracle … [in the] the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!”
His subject and its relation to freedom and prosperity were certainly worth capturing in such a clever, pleasing, and illuminating essay, which is why it is one of the best-known works in the popular free-market literature.
But there’s another lesson in “I, Pencil” that has been largely overlooked, perhaps by Read himself. “I, Pencil” is also an excellent primer in the Austrian approach to capital theory. It’s worth looking at Read’s essay in that light.
Early on, Read’s pencil describes his family tree, beginning with the cedars grown in northern California and Oregon that provide the wooden slats. But he doesn’t really start with the trees. He notes that turning trees into pencils requires “saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding,” and those things have to be produced before a pencil can be produced. “Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!”
What emerges here is what Austrian economists call a structure of production. This structure is characterized by two closely related elements: multiple stages (distinguished by their “distance” from the consumer) and time. The pencil that eventually emerges at the end of the process must first proceed, in various states of incompleteness, through a series of stations at which components are transformed in ways consistent with making pencils. The stations themselves have to be prepared through earlier stages of production. Thus before trees can be cut down and turned into wooden slats, saws, trucks, rope, railroad cars, and other things must be produced first. Before steel can be used to make saws, trucks, and railroad cars, iron ore must be mined and processed. And so on. The same kind of description can be provided for each component of the pencil: the paint, the graphite, the compound that comprises the eraser, the brass ferrule that holds the eraser.
Tracing the pencil’s genealogy back to iron, zinc, copper, and graphite mines; hemp plants; rubber trees; castor beans; and much more demonstrates the “roundaboutness” of production, the term of the early Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. Much time and effort are spent not on making pencils but rather things that will–sooner or later–help to make pencils. Without central direction, entrepreneurs set up production this way because more, better, and cheaper pencils can be made more profitably than by some more direct process.
Several things are worth pointing out about the structure of production. First, while no central planner is responsible for pencil production overall, entrepreneurs and workers at each stage do have plans and expectations, which they strive to coordinate with one another across stages and time periods. The key to coordination is the price system. If there’s a brass shortage, rising prices will communicate that information to the ferrule and pencil makers. The downstream entrepreneurs will have to adjust their plans in response to the new conditions–say, by finding a substitute material. The demand for a substitute material will in turn set appropriate processes in motion as entrepreneurs react. In the real world of disequilibrium, change is the rule, so plans are always undergoing revision… Continue reading