What ants teach us about the brain, cancer and the internet

By studying how ant colonies work without any one leader, Deborah Gordon has identified striking similarities in how ant colonies, brains, cells and computer networks regulate themselves.

Do ants know something we don’t? Deborah M Gordon is an ecologist, and looks at ants in a BIG way!

She studies ant colonies to investigate systems that operate without central control, and explore analogies with other systems such as the internet, the immune system and the brain. 

The collective behaviour of ants takes many forms, such as emergence, self-organization, superorganism, quorum sensing, artificial intelligence, and dynamical networks. Over many years of research Deborah Gordon has learned that ant colonies can work without central control by using simple interactions, like how often the insects touch antennae. Contrary to the notion that colonies are organized by efficient ants, she has instead discovered that evolution has produced “noisy” systems that tolerate accident and respond flexibly to the environment. When conditions are tough, natural selection favours colonies that conserve resources.

With a dusty backhoe, a handful of Japanese paint markers and a few students in tow, Deborah Gordon digs up ant colonies in the Arizona desert to understand their complex social system. In this fascinating TED talk she explores the “Anternet,” and argues that ant life provides a useful model for learning about many other topics, including disease, technology and the human brain.

And if that’s not all, her latest exploration is ‘How do ants behave in space?’


Deborah M. Gordon is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford. She studies the evolution of collective organization by investigating the ecology and behaviour of ant colonies, and has been awarded fellowships from Guggenheim and the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. Gordon is the author of two books, Ants at Work and Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior.


Further fascinating links –

The Gordon Lab

TED Talk – The Emergent Genius of ant colonies’ (2003)

Wired – ‘What do Ants Know That We Don’t?’ (2013)

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