Deborah Gordon: Why Don't Ants Need A Leader? The world's largest ant colony stretches over 3,700 miles. It succeeds, biologist Deborah Gordon says, because no ant is in charge. They communicate with algorithmic patterns to survive and thrive.

Deborah Gordon: Why Don't Ants Need A Leader?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So do you want to hear something really cool?


RAZ: OK. Take a listen.


RAZ: Do you know what that is?

GORDON: I think that could be the sound of ant feet stampeding through their nest.

RAZ: Now, I know what you're thinking. That was a really good guess.

GORDON: I'm Deborah Gordon. I'm a professor of biology at Stanford, and I study ants.


RAZ: Deborah, of course, had actually heard this recording before. It's from an Australian sound engineer, Stephen Frost, who captured the sound of some ants crawling over little, tiny microphones. They're loud.

GORDON: They are loud.

RAZ: Yeah. I guess if you put similar microphones on the sidewalks of, like, New York City, it would sound kind of similar.

GORDON: Yeah. I think it would be a lot more chaotic.


RAZ: So what were you interested in that got you into ants?

GORDON: Well, I've always liked finding the pattern underneath a process that seems disordered or turbulent. Actually, my first interest was in music theory. So it was a revelation to find out about the rules of counterpoint to understand that not only is a piece by Bach very beautiful, but it also is following rules. And so you can't move in parallel fourths. You can't move in parallel fifths. Each note can only follow certain other notes, can only take certain steps. The music has to follow those rules. But of course, when you're listening, you don't know anything about the rules. You just hear this beautiful music. And for me, it was amazing to realize that underneath this wonderful sound was a pattern and a system.

RAZ: And that is exactly why Deborah Gordon loves ants.


RAZ: Because underneath all that chaos is a system too, a system that you probably encounter every day.

GORDON: So harvester ants in the desert have evolved to deal with the problem of conserving water. They have to spend water to get water. So when an ant is out in the desert sun foraging, it loses water to the air.

RAZ: Yeah.

GORDON: But they get their water out of the seeds that they eat. So the colony has to regulate foraging, and they do this with a very simple system of feedback. An ant doesn't leave the nest unless it's met enough ants returning with food.


RAZ: And a meeting for an ant is just a quick little touch.

GORDON: That's right, where they're smelling each other with their antennae.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, ants clearly don't have meetings all day.

GORDON: That - now, that's one of the good things about being an ant - no meetings.

RAZ: Yeah, no meetings at all.

So in an ant colony in the desert, when there's more food outside...

GORDON: The ants find it faster. And they come back faster, and more ants inside go out to get it. And when there isn't very much food out there, they come back very slowly, and ants don't go out.

RAZ: Now, that system of organization is surprisingly similar to something we humans came up with.

GORDON: So when they first set up the Internet, operating costs were very high, so they set up a protocol that doesn't let a data packet go out until it gets an acknowledgment from the router that the previous data packet had the bandwidth to go on. So we invented, for the Internet, a very similar algorithm...

RAZ: Wow.

GORDON: ...To one that has evolved in desert ants many, many millions of years, and we just invented the internet yesterday.

RAZ: That's incredible. I mean, it would seem to suggest there is a reason why we came to that algorithm and there's a reason why it works - because it's been tested for millions of years.

GORDON: That's right. And I think for situations where we don't have the right algorithm yet, we could look to see, well, how has nature solved that problem? And maybe we could use that solution.


RAZ: It's possible for even the most chaotic systems to be organized and sometimes in ways that would never occur to us. On the show today, how and why we organize stories and ideas about new ways of handling complexity in the workplace...

RICARDO SEMLER: If you find you need to come here, come here. If you're good to work at home, work at home. We just want to make sure that you are self-directed.

RAZ: ...New ways of organizing your family...

BRUCE FEILER: Nothing has been more top-down through history than the family. The problem is, the life that we are sending our kids into is not top-down anymore.

RAZ: ...Organizing disaster relief...

MORGAN O'NEILL: But it just was crazy to us that we showed up and spontaneously decided to give orders and that was fine.

RAZ: ...And why organized systems sometimes still fail...

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: We know how to, you know, go and occupy a park together, but we don't yet know how to think together.

RAZ: Most of the systems we'll hear about this episode, of course, are human systems, but Deborah Gordon says, if you start with how ants are organized...

GORDON: You're going in the same order that evolution went.

RAZ: Perfect.

GORDON: (Laughter). All right.

RAZ: Yeah, that's perfect. That's...

And she says you can actually learn a lot from ants...

GORDON: About how effective a noisy, messy system can be.

RAZ: Here's Deborah's TED Talk.


GORDON: We can learn from this about other systems, like brains and data networks that we engineer. What all these systems have in common is that there's no central control. An ant colony consists of sterile female workers - those are the ants you see walking around - and then one or more reproductive females who just lay the eggs. They don't give any instructions even though they're called queens. They don't tell anybody what to do. So in an ant colony, there's no one in charge.

And all systems like this without central control are regulated using very simple interactions. Ants interact using smell. They smell with their antennae, and they interact with their antennae. So when one ant touches another with its antennae, it can tell, for example, if the other ant is a nest mate and what task that other ant has been doing.

So when one ant meets another, it doesn't matter which ant it meets. And they're actually not transmitting any kind of complicated signal or message. All that matters to the ant is the rate at which it meets other ants. And all of these interactions taken together produce a network. So just as a neuron adds up its stimulation from other neurons to decide whether to fire, an ant adds up its stimulation from other ants to decide whether to forage.

RAZ: Which brings us back to the main idea Deborah Gordon thinks we can take from ants. The brain, like an ant colony and so many other systems in nature, has no central control. And yet, we humans have set up so many of our systems in exactly the opposite way, from feudal systems of kings and noblemen to modern government, corporations, the military. Someone at the top is always in control.

GORDON: But in a blade of grass, there's no central control. And in a human body, there's no central control. Nobody's telling one of your blood cells, OK, you go over here; and then when you get there, you're going to meet this immune cell, and this is what you should do when that happens. So systems without central control are everywhere in nature.

RAZ: Yeah.

GORDON: But if you think about the feudal system, it's not only that the king has this power, but it's also - the king constantly has to persuade everybody that he has this power.

RAZ: Right.

GORDON: And everybody has to keep reinforcing the idea that he has this power. So it doesn't just sit there. It has to constantly be maintained and reinforced and controlled and fought over. So it takes a lot of work to maintain a hierarchy.

RAZ: Which doesn't really apply to the ant world.

GORDON: That's right. The ants don't do that work, and our bodies don't do that work. And maybe, in a way, it's more effective and efficient to have a system without any central control, where the whole thing can keep working without having to do all that extra effort of maintaining a hierarchy.

There are more than 12,000 species of ants in every conceivable environment that operate without central control. Using only simple interactions, ant colonies have been performing amazing feats for more than 130 million years. We have a lot to learn from them. Thank you.


RAZ: Deborah Gordon - you can see both of her TED Talks about how ants are organized at

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