Ant irrationality leads to collective rationality?

Amongst the more interesting aspects of present day sociology is the quest to properly understand the distinction between different levels of aggregation. Easy as this may seem, the real problem arises in analyzing properly how individual actions bring about changes at societal level.

But, besides on an analytical level, theoretically some interesting mistakes sometimes are made, even to this day. On the other hand, properly distinguishing between individual and society leads to propositions as `individual rationality leads to collective irrationality’. Because individual people tend to set their own individual goals, a collective of people fail to reach goals that individuals cannot reach on their own. For instance, we all want to live in a less polluted environment, but when it rains, most of us are triggered to use a car instead of a bike. We reason for ourselves “what does this one small drive do to the environment compared to every other polluter?”, or even “If I come at work all rained down every autumn day, the other who uses his car (and even lives a shorter distance from work!) might get my promotion!” One of the very few ways to (actively) bring collective change about, is by `forcing’ every individual into some mode of behavior, for instance by means of legislation.

Nevertheless, we tend to think of humans as (somewhat) rational: we set goals, often influenced by self-interest, and think about means to reach our goals. On an individual level that is. Most animals are not regarded as rational. For instance, the behavior of `simple’ animals as ants are to a very large extent regulated by genetics and communication through pheromones. Reacting largely directly on the influences from the environment is perhaps not the best example of rationality indeed.

So the ants are not (all that much) rational. But does this mean that they cannot reach collective goals? For some reason, since last weekend I tend to think that their individual irrationality is very well capable of producing collective rational action. In the movie I saw this weekend (see below), a magnificent megalopolis is build by ants. No way that a central `organization’ or leader ant has planned this. So, somehow, their individual `irrationality’, their basic reacting to stimuli based on a genetic predisposition, has lead to a magnificent example of collective rationality!

I’d say the we are in dire need of reversing to proposition “individual rationality leads to collective irrationality” and add “individual irrationality leads to collective rationality” to our knowledge of existing `social’ processes.

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