Quorum sensing

Dwight spotted this great post on quorum sensing. It looks at the process by which for example, ants decide where to move a nest to. Essentially, they don’t gather round a big ant-table, review an ant-powerpoint, make ant-speeches. There isn’t any show-of-antennae decision point.

Instead, the ants wander off and gradually build up patterns of attraction and lay down pheromone trails, until a quorum is somehow sensed… and off they go.

There are some good reflections on how this might provide wisdom for human decision-making. As a keen critic of action theatre, I found this very engaging. The ants don’t do action planning, a ritual that often has very little do with real action.

Forgiving a little bit of romanticism about the life of an ant, this tickled me:

Truth to tell, I was struck speechless by the realization that these ants are freer than us humans. (Ants?! Ouch.) They are free to go out and act as they see fit, free to explore any option they find interesting, and to tell about it to the group. And they are free to wait until a deep sense of rightness emerges that propels the entire nest to action. Unlike humans, they are never faced with a contrived decision to obey.

The comments are interesting too, including one from Antonio Dias linking it to what David Bohm says about the potential of dialogue. There’s something here about there not being a decision that is separate from the action; it’s more satisfyingly emergent and interconnected.

1 thought on “Quorum sensing

  1. Antonio Dias


    When you think about what people actually end up doing in critical situations, their behavior often has little relation with whatever rationalizations they might have put forward in a “debate.” When the luxury to pontificate and posture is lost, people tend to – those who don’t paralyze – bend to accommodate actual conditions in ways you might not predict from their previous “positions.” This comes out in disasters and is often the subject of drama.

    At such times we tend to instinctively leave aside processes of ratiocination and just get on with things. More often than not, these are times when long-held positions that caused harsh divisions seem to evaporate as we realize they mean little in the grand scheme of things.

    Other creatures seem to be in this mode all of the time – at least when not engaged in play, though they don’t seem to confuse the two. This is consistent with Bohm’s points regarding the way thought hijacks us, leading us away from a direct experience of our surroundings and into conditioned behavior. Crises seem to act as a nudge to bring us back to a more even keel.

    This goes against all the mythologizing about “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw!” and the “Depravity” of people in primal situations, that only sanctioned violence keeps us all from an “animalistic state of savagery.” Most projections do this – just look at any rabid right-winger – they lead people to ascribe their greatest fears to what they disagree with even when the evidence points to the contrary.


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