Week 7_Little ants are conscious too_by Cheng-Kuang Liu

I am fascinated with the animal examples that Dr. Ramakrishnan brought up when he talks about consciousness. It is amazing how an elephant is able to recognize its mirror image as a reflection of itself. I have seen video clips or heard stories of how other kinds of animals behave when they see a mirror—they either get ready to “fight” the mirror image as a competitor, or they show affection for the reflection as another one of its own kind. None of them realize that the mirror images are actually themselves. It is interesting how the elephant is able to recognize it.

I am inspired to think of other animals. Ants, for example. Ants are stereotypically thought to be a “two-dimensional” animal—because they crawl around on a plane, and since they are so small, they must not have much perception of height. When mathematicians explain what a 2-D world would be like, they often use ants as examples. Indeed, if the observer is small enough, any surface is locally approximately two-dimensional. Yet look at the ant nests they build—so three-dimensional and so complex (http://thinkorthwim.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/ant-nest-plaster-cast.jpg). It is as if there is a mastermind behind the entire construction, having a complete blueprint in mind when the nest was built, but this is not the case. The nest is built by small ants who are not supposed to know what is happening anywhere else other than the very location that it currently is. They are not even supposed to be able to perceive a third dimension beyond the plane that they crawl on. Or, at least that what we humans think. The sheer grandeur of the ant nest’s construction shows that there must be some kind of consciousness among these ants—a consciousness for the rest of the colony, for the rest of the nest construction, and so on. What a fascinating fact! Ants are so small, and their brains are even smaller, yet there is such unity among them all. Furthermore, how does each ant know its own duty? If each ant simply acts on its own accord or simply respond to needs as they arise, with the massive number of ants in a colony, there would be utter chaos. On the contrary, their tasks are very finely broken down, and each ant has its specific duty. At the proper times, a proper number gather food, a proper number build, a proper number fight, and a proper number reproduce. There is such intricate coordination among the ants, even though an ant does not even cross paths with most other ants in the colony. Scientists now know that ants could communicate chemically with pheromone, but still it is mind-blowing what complexity there is in an ant society.

The ant society resembles the human society. To a certain extent, each human acts on his own accord. Yet on the other hand, each person has a very specific set of duties outlined, in the context of the society. And whether or not we are aware it, the fact is that we are constantly conscious of one another and our actions mutually affect one another. If one could zoom out and look at the human society as we look at an ant colony, one would too exclaim how intricate the fabric of society is. Even though a person may only cross paths with finite individuals in a day, there is nevertheless an intangible coordination that links all our lives in harmony.

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