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   Ant Encounters
Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
09 Sep 2010

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Making a case for ant-watchers

There is a fascinating parallel between ubiquitous ants and urban traffic. Other than numbers, peak traffic flow is symbolic of collective behavior of ants, as at a critical concentration it bifurcates into a new branch where not only it pushes others but gets pushed by others too. In dilute traffic flows, however, much like ants you follow your inclination.

Not without reason is the use of ‘ant’ algorithms a thriving industry in computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics. Ants’ collective intelligence is now being used to encourage research leading to the development of vehicles that can navigate using moment-to-moment responses to their own sensors, without any need for remote control.

In her encounters with ants, Deborah Gordon, Professor of Biology at the Stanford University, has revealed that irrespective of its size an ant colony operates without a central control or hierarchy, as no ant directs another. It is amazing that unlike the bees, the queen is not in charge as the colony itself acts as a ‘superorganism’. She argues that ant society offers the choice of a system for the human society to organize itself without any distinct hierarchy.

Deborah Gordon's Ant Encounters is stimulating, erasing misconceptions that the Hollywood movies like Antz seek to portray. These movies show the ant colony as a corporation with more or less disgruntled workers. In contrast, ant colonies are anything but a totalitarian society where individual ants decide what to do based on the rate, rhythm and pattern of individual encounters and interactions - resulting in a dynamic network that coordinates the functions of the colony.

Varying in colors from red to black and from blue to orange there are over 11,000 species of ants that have been identified. These social insects are reported to be 140 million years old, having survived the last extinction that accounted for the mighty dinosaurs. It is even suggested that the mass of ants may be ten times that of humans on the planet.

Given their sheer numbers, it is tragic that only 50 species of ants have thus far been studied in detail. Had the English, in the nineteenth century, extended their obsessions with birds and wildflowers a bit further to ants, there would have been local ant-watchers club! Gordon's work is of historical significance as she connects evolutionary biology with political theory in making a case that ant societies are model systems for the study of collective behavior.

Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks & Colony Behavior
by Deborah Gordon, Princeton University Press, Oxford; 167 pages, $ 19.95

 Other books reviewed by Dr Sudhirendar Sharma
Features > Book Shelf
Spoiling Tibet
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

A Journey in the Future of Water
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Yamuna Manifesto
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

Lead View
People, Partition and the Pain
By Rina Mukherji
15 Aug 2013

Dr Jayanti Basu's book analyzes the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to ..
Book Shelf

Yamuna Manifesto

A Journey in the Future of Water

Spoiling Tibet

On Western Terrorism
Devinder Sharma
Carmen Miranda
Pandurang Hegde
Sudhirendar Sharma
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