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Flickr Photo by Fernando Kokubun

Editor's Note: Interaction

​In the 1970s, American biologist and researcher, E.O. Wilson postulated his popular theory of ant behavior. Most schoolchildren are well-acquainted with Wilson’s concept of ant society—each type of ant has a specific job that is most beneficial to the colony. These jobs—forager, soldier, queen—need no instruction, they are hardwired into the ant and cannot be reversed. Once a forager, always a forager.

In her 28 years of research, Stanford University Professor Deborah Gordon has discovered that ant behavior is far less organized and far more ingenious than previous models suggest. “In an ant colony, there is no one in charge,” Gordon explains in her TED Talk, “What Ants Teach Us About the Brain.”

According to Gordon, the so-called queen only lays eggs. She does not communicate or control the ants in her nest. When they encounter each other, ants use smell to determine whether they are from the same colony and what tasks each has been engaged in. “No information is exchanged,” says Gordon. “All that matters is the rate at which an ant meets other ants.”

She explains that an ant doesn’t go out to forage until it meets a certain number of foraging ants coming back carrying food. “In harsh environments, the ants’ system stays dormant until something, in this case, ants returning with food, activates it. Different colonies have different criteria...they each require a certain number of interactions to trigger ants to go foraging,” she says.

In lush, tropical environments, the instructions are flipped, and ants forage unless something happens to stop them. 

A group of researchers at Stanford found that the algorithm desert ants use to regulate foraging is similar to the protocol used to regulate data traffic on the Internet. In her article “What Do Ants Know that We Don’t?” in Wired, Gordon notes that “both ant and human networks use positive feedback: either from acknowledgements that trigger the transmission of the next data packet, or from food-laden returning foragers that trigger the exit of another outgoing forager.” 

In Ants at Work, Gordon marvels at the differences between ant and human societies. “Ants have no dictators, no generals, no evil masterminds. In fact there are no leaders at all.”

“This is the puzzle,” she writes. “If the ants don’t work like a miniature human society, how do a group of rather inept little creatures create a colony that gets things done?”

Getting things done in a human society can be just as baffling, especially in harsh corporate environments. In this month’s cover story “Running on Empty,” Senior Editor Mark Tarallo explores how stress and overwork can devastate employees.

Like deceptively complex ant societies, burnout doesn’t always take on predictable forms. High performers may be able to maintain their workload but still be working under stressful and unsustainable conditions. The answer is a watchful manager and an exchange of information in the form of complex, human, interaction.