Natures wonders: Termites 'collective' mind (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Saturday, October 31, 2015, 00:18 (1740 days ago) @ David Turell

Close study shows some of the termites have differing personalities and the colonies have some sort of group think:

"The nest is not air-conditioned - the mound controls neither the nest's temperature or its humidity. Instead, the mound captures energy in wind to stir the mound air and mix it with the nest's stagnant air, just as you would mix the layers of hot and cold water in a bathtub. This is just what our own lungs do, with the mixing powered by the chest muscles. The termites' clever trick is to power that function with energy in turbulent wind.


" You can see the termites' collective mind at work if you drill a hole in the side of the mound. After about 10 minutes, a few termites will show up and start building a mud wall. Then more will come, and more, and more, until there is a frenzy of little termite masons sealing off that hole.


"That is a remarkable feat of swarm intelligence. The hole itself is quite a long walk for termites living in the nest, but they must somehow come to know their mound has a hole in it. How? How does a blind termite find the hole? How do they direct their repair efforts to the right place? What calls them off once they are done? How do they even know they are done? These are challenging tasks for tiny insects individually, but collectively they seem to solve them just fine, even when the repair extends far beyond the six-week lifespan of a typical termite worker.

"The collective intelligence of the colony is quite real, as real as our own intelligence, and we are far from comprehending either.


"There are identifiable termite “personalities.” Some are “initiators,” getting building under way and running around recruiting lazier nestmates to the task, physically prodding them into action if they resist. Some individuals share water avidly with others, devoting 15 minutes or so to sucking up precious water from soil then distributing it to thirsty nestmates.


"Swarm intelligence provides a case in point: are termites simply little robots, programmed to operate through simple algorithms of behavior? Or is there something special, something vital about them that gives what they do an entirely different meaning?

"For a long time, I had thought the former, but I have to say I'm now leaning more toward the latter. What clinched the deal for me was watching swarms of termites settle into what might pass in a Petri dish as a normal setting - familiar soil, a little moisture, a small chip of wood and some fungus from their colony - where there were no swarm aphasias or other signs of cognitive distress.


"After a while of exploring their little artificial world, the termites would begin to groom one another. It's a remarkable thing to watch. One termite, the groomer, begins to lick another and then painstakingly works each of the “groomee's” appendages - legs, antennae, mouth parts - through its mandibles. All this time, the groomee seems almost tranquil: its antennae cease to move, it languidly presents its appendages to the groomer as if to say “now this one.” The grooming can become quite intense, with “grooming stations” forming, groups of termites waiting their turn to be attended by a particularly avid groomer.

"Eventually, it hit me: these are not robots; they are living things with individuality, wants and desires. A robot cannot ever “want” to be groomed or “want” to give water to another or “want” a drink. But termites seemingly do. And this gives termites, both individually and collectively, something like a soul - an animating principle that one does not find in mere machines.

Comment: dhw will like this. Not convinced he is not anthropomorphizing them.

Complete thread:

 RSS Feed of thread

powered by my little forum