Can Social Insects Have a Civilization?

by Paul Gilster on December 31, 2015

I first encountered Michael Chorost in his fine book World Wide Mind (Free Press, 2011), which looks at the relationship between biology and the machine tools that can enhance it. Mike’s thinking on SETI has already produced rich discussion in these pages (see, for example, SETI: Contact and Enigma). In today’s essay, he’s asking for reader reactions to the provocative ideas on insect memory and intelligence that will inform his next book. While it does not happen on Earth, can evolution invent — somewhere — a social insect society capable of long-term memory and civilization? A nearby planet evidently hostile to our kind of life offers fertile ground for speculation.

by Michael Chorost


I’ve admired Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams for many months and I’ve always been impressed by the quality of the comments. Paul graciously allowed me to write a guest entry to test one of my book-in-progress’s ideas on a smart audience — you.

This book-in-progress will be my third book. My first two books were about bionics and neuroengineering, respectively titled Rebuilt (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and World Wide Mind (Free Press, 2011.) I’ve also published in Wired, New Scientist, Slate, Technology Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Astronomy Now.

The book is about communication with extraterrestrials. Not by radio but in person, with us visiting their planet and looking at their mugs (or whatever they have instead of mugs). How should we begin trying to communicate? What could we safely assume — and not assume — about how minds think? What knowledge could we bring to bear from evolutionary theory, linguistics, cognitive science, and computer science?

Of course, direct contact anytime soon is unlikely in the extreme. That’s why, below the surface, the book is about a deeper set of issues: What are the universals of thought and language? Can intelligent minds be so different as to render communication impossible? What kinds of advanced cognition can an evolutionary process invent? The book gets at these ideas by using alien communication as a vehicle.

So here’s the idea I want to test on you all. I asked myself, “Would it be possible for social insect colonies on some other planet to evolve to have language and technology – in other words, a civilization?”

Of course, the idea of swarm intelligence, or hive-mind intelligence, has been around forever in science fiction. To give but one example, Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm posits an undersea alien made of single-celled, physically unconnected organisms that collectively have considerable intelligence. But I need to examine the idea with much more rigor than can be done in fiction.

I refined the question by deciding that, as on earth, the individual insects would have brains too small for serious cognition. The unit of analysis would not be individual bugs but colonies of bugs. The intelligence would have to emerge from their interaction.

After much thought, my answer to the question is “No – but…”

Let me explain both the No and the but. It is these explanations on which I want your feedback.

To start with the No. I don’t think it’s possible for physically separate units to form a collective that supports high intelligence. The reason is straightforward: physically disconnected units have no way of permanently storing large amounts of discrete information in a way that is available to the collective. More succinctly, they can’t support long-term memory.

Of course, information can be manipulated by collectives even when the units have no permanent connections among them. If you’ve read Douglas Hofstadter’s “Ant Fugue” you know how ant colonies collectively find and consume food. A forager comes across food and lays a pheromone trail while returning to the nest. Other workers follow that trail and lay down pheromones of their own. When the food is gone the returning ants stop emitting pheromones, and the ants move on to other things. From a global perspective it looks as if the colony has a “memory” of the food source. Insect colonies have many mechanisms of this sort, which go under names like “stigmergy” and “quorum sensing.” They are brilliantly described in the literature, especially by Thomas Seeley. [1] But all of them yield only short-term memory. As soon as the insects disperse and the pheromone evaporates, the information vanishes.

That is a problem, because language and other forms of advanced cognition need long-term memory. Language requires storing a large number of primitives (e.g. words) plus state information related to a conversation (the identity of the interlocutor, the situation, information about past and future, and so forth.) Not only that, the method of storage has to be both stable and easily changeable. If it can’t be changed, an intelligence can’t keep up with changing events in the world.

Let me pause here to define what I mean by “intelligence” and “language.”

I like the definition of intelligence offered by Luke Muehlhauser in his book Facing The Intelligence Explosion. [2] He defines it as “efficient cross-domain optimization.” Cross-domain optimization refers to being able to exercise intelligence in multiple domains. Consider that IBM’s Deep Blue program is very smart at chess but can’t play checkers, let alone want to learn how. It has intelligence in one domain, and only one. Or take honeybees, who are outstanding at communicating the location of food but have no way of asking humans to move that food closer, or change it. In order to cross domains a mind needs not just cognition but metacognition, the ability to think about thinking. When I speak of intelligence I mean the kind that can reflect upon its own actions, make plans, describe things that don’t exist, and so forth. This is the kind of intelligence that is required to build a civilization.

Now language. I like Steven Pinker’s definition of it: Language is a finite set of primitives that when combined yield an infinite number of possible statements. [3] By this definition, language is open-ended. It can be used to say anything. Contrast that to, say, referee signals in baseball. They are a communication system but not a language. A referee can precisely say whether a pitch is a ball or strike, but he can’t use the repertoire of signs to talk about taxes, or explain that the pitcher has just become a free agent. Likewise, a honeybee can precisely state where food is but can’t use its waggle dance to discuss the weather with a human. Animals such as honeybees, birds, chimps, dolphins, parrots, and dogs all have communications systems, some of which are very sophisticated, but they are closed-ended; they do not rise to the level of language.

Now that I have defined intelligence and language, please note that both of them simply have to have long-term memory. Without long-term memory, no intelligence, no language. And I don’t think there is any way at all that a social insect colony can get long-term memory if its units are physically disconnected. It has no physical medium in which it can store information in a way that is both permanent and easily changed.

So, Conclusion A: Social insect colonies do not have the memory mechanisms to support language, therefore no bug civilizations.

Now let’s get to the “but.” After working out Conclusion A I asked myself, “Could insect colonies acquire, through an evolutionary process, a mechanism of long-term memory?” I think the answer to that question is yes.

Consider how mammalian brains store long-term memory: in collections of synapses. A synapse is a physical gap between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of another. Depending on the strength of an incoming signal and the synapse’s threshold, neurotransmitters either flood into that gap or they don’t. If they do, they are picked up – essentially “smelled” – by chemoreceptors on the dendrite’s side. Then the signal continues to the body of the next neuron, which uses it as an input for its own decision-making process.

Each neuron in a mammalian brain has thousands of synaptic connections to other neurons – it is part of an immense network of physically connected units. By changing synaptic configurations and thresholds, neurons can encode immense amounts of discrete information. That information is both stable and easily changeable.

So for an insect colony to gain long-term memory, it has to invent the equivalent of the synapse. Not in the brains of individual insects – they already have plenty – but on the level of the colony as a whole, using interactions between insects.

This is obviously tricky because insects move around. But there are insects in colonies that don’t move around: the larvae. Even better, in flying insect colonies they are generally stored in honeycombs that keep them in place. And better still, they’re loaded with chemoreceptors. The ends of antennae and feet are the “noses” by which insects pick up smells.

Imagine, then, the antennae and feet of developing larvae thrusting their way through the waxen walls of honeycombs and making contact with the antennae and feet of their neighbors. Right there you have the basic elements of synaptic connections. If the larvae can send signals and adjust synaptic thresholds, they could form a network.

Of course, there has to be an evolutionary reason why such a network would ever come into being. There would have to be accidental variations that create primitive networks, and they would have to confer fitness and reproduction benefits.

So consider this story of an evolutionary process. It so happens that in some kinds of colonies, the larvae perform a digestive function for the colony. The workers bring them the food that they can’t digest, and the larvae break them down into compounds the workers can eat. [4] So the larvae are effectively the colony’s stomach. The food needs of workers vary depending on temperature and season and so forth. Larvae that could exchange information with other larvae about digestion could produce better food, and that benefit would tend to be conserved and amplified. Over many generations, then, colonial stomachs could evolve into colonial brains. Each larva would be a large neuron with many connections to other larvae, and the synaptic configurations between them would store long-term memories.

This is, of course, a just-so story – but then evolution is full of just-so stories of evolutionary adaptations that seem spectacularly improbable. For example, insect wings are thought to be adapted legs. [5] And insects have often evolved to look like leaves and twigs for camouflage. Nature is astonishingly inventive at reshuffling its building blocks. I am not trying to convince you that my larvae-to-brains story is likely, only that it is possible.

There is one more piece to the puzzle. Long-term memory is metabolically and spatially expensive. Clearly, on Earth insect colonies have seen no need to develop it; they’ve done well for millions of years without it. So you need to have an environment in which it would confer fitness advantages.

Consider the planet GJ832c.

GJ832c is a rocky planet of 5.4 Earth masses orbiting a red dwarf star sixteen light-years away. Happily, it’s in the star’s habitable zone. Since a red dwarf is very dim the habitable zone has to be very close to it, and accordingly GJ832c has a year just 36 days long. [6]

We don’t know much about GJ832c. We don’t know its density, so we don’t know its surface gravity. But I’ve guessed that it’s 78% as dense as Earth, which would give it a surface gravity of 1.5 gees. We don’t know its rotational period, but since it’s so close to its star it would probably be gravitationally locked. Mercury has a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which means that it rotates three times every two years. So let’s say that GJ832c also has a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance.

We don’t know its axial tilt, but gravitational locking tends to stabilize axial tilt near zero – Mercury’s is just two degrees, and the Moon’s is 6.6 degrees, compared to the Earth’s 23 degrees. So let’s say its axial tilt is zero. But we do know its orbital eccentricity, .18, which is very eccentric by our solar system’s standards.

If you put these facts and guesses together you can compute how much solar exposure each point on such a planet gets, like so:


Astonishingly, on such a planet the climate is determined as much by longitude as latitude. Yes, longitude. Some longitudes are in daylight for long periods, while other longitudes never see the sun at all – including a few points on the equator. The planet looks like a tennis ball with burns on opposite sides (red), a temperate zone ringing the burns (yellow), and ice everywhere else (blue). [7]

To be sure, the temperature extremes would be moderated by the atmosphere. My guess is that you would see Hadley cells centered on the hot zones, since the hot air would rise and cold air would come in underneath it. Since the planet rotates so slowly, you wouldn’t see much Coriolis force to shear the atmosphere sideways. So there would probably be steady winds moving toward the center of each hot zone, distributing heat between the zones.

Note, however, that only one “hot” end can face the star at any given moment. The center of each hot zone would face the star continuously for blistering days on end, and then suffer a long night. (I haven’t worked out what the day-night cycle would look like on various points of the planet. Perhaps the temperate zones would be in continuous but relatively soft illumination. For this I need the help of someone who specializes in orbital dynamics.)

In any case, GJ832c would be a nasty planet. It’d have high gravity, temperature extremes, constant wind, and possibly a thick atmosphere and ultraviolet flares from its star. I don’t think you would get large-brained mammals here simply because of the gravity: blood circulation and locomotion would be expensive. Predator actions like leaping and throwing things would be difficult. So would prey defenses like running and climbing.

What would flourish here? Bugs. Bugs are modular, tough, and cheap. They are small enough to be relatively unaffected by gravity, and their chitinous exoskeletons would be relatively impervious to UV flares.

So let’s say that social insect colonies evolve in the temperate zone. But the temperate zone is exceedingly narrow, perhaps just a few hundred miles across. Sooner or later population pressures are going to drive new colonies into the hot and cold zones. There, new colonies could find resources that aren’t in the temperate zone, say particular kinds of hothouse flowers, lichens, and fungi. And they would face new scarcities too, say of water.

On GJ832c, colonies that learned to trade resources across zones would have an enormous survival advantage. Water for nectar, nectar for fungus, and so on. Insects on Earth have signaling mechanisms that could be adapted to manage such trades. For example, they engage in territorial displays in which soldiers posture at the borders between colonies, inflating their limbs to seem more threatening, while “head-counting” ants on each side carry information about the enemy back to the nest. (They probably don’t actually count the soldiers using numerals; more likely they sense the rate of encounters with them.) [8] Such signaling mechanisms could be adapted to convey information for economic exchanges. Colonial brains would store such information, remembering who traded what and for how much. Over many generations, such signaling systems could evolve into language.

You may wonder about tools, since tools have fundamentally shaped the development of language in humans. For brevity’s sake I won’t go into it here, but I’ve worked out how insect colonies could ignite fire, forge metals, and use tools; again, I’ve extrapolated from things social insects do on Earth. With language and tools a species is just a few hops, skips, and jumps away from having a full-fledged civilization.

This doesn’t mean they would think like humans, of course. They would have networks that can support long-term memory, but those networks would have a very different organization and would support very different kinds of physical needs. In the manuscript I discuss the role of simulation and embodied cognition on the development of language.

So, Conclusion B: With the right environmental pressures, social insects could develop long-term memory, language, tool use, and a civilization.

Again, I am not arguing that this is likely, only that it is possible. What do you think? Am I correct in thinking it is possible, or is there something fundamental that I am neglecting?

I’m asking you to put pressure on these ideas. To look for their weak spots. But I would also appreciate it if, for each weak spot, you could suggest a solution, if you can think of one.

Many thanks in advance for your comments and ideas.



1. Seeley, Thomas (2010). Honeybee Democracy, Princeton.

2. Muehlhauser, Luke (2013). Facing The Intelligence Explosion. Machine Intelligence Research Institute. Kindle location 655.

3. Pinker, Steven (2007.) The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Harper Perennial, p. 75.

4. Masuko, Keiichi (1986). “Larval hemolymph feeding: a nondestructive parental cannibalism in the primitive ant Amblyopone silvestrii Wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae).” Behav Ecol Sociobiol 19: 249-255. See also

5. Carroll, Sean (2006). Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. Norton, p. 176.

6. Planetary Habitability Laboratory data for GJ832c,

7. Brown et al. (2014). “Photosynthetic Potential of Planets in 3:2 Spin Orbit Resonances.” International Journal of Astrobiology 13:4 (279-289). Page 284. I’ve used the figure computed for an eccentricity of 0.2, which I figure is close enough.

8. Hölldobler, B., and Wilson E. O. (2008). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, p. 306.


Eric Hughes January 3, 2016 at 10:51

The “no” part of the essay is a classic case of a fallacy common in speculation at the edge of scientific endeavor: “I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t exist.” I don’t know how to talk about where this fallacy arises from without tossing around words like “hubris” and “arrogance”, so I’ll leave that line of tirade aside.

Proving the non-existence of a premise is the same as proving the universality of the negation of that premise, a basic fact of first-order logic. Proving universal statements at the scale of the universe is simply scientifically invalid, as humanity does not and never will have sufficient evidence. In certain restricted domains, it’s possible to develop “no-go” theorems, but the constraints on the premises are stringent. And even when such theorems are true, they merely point out that nature must avoid the constraints in some way that humanity has not (yet) imagined or seen.

As for the question of intelligence, it’s a completely terracentric assumption that mind and organism have coterminous boundaries. (It’s also terracentric to assume that life as a whole must be based on organisms, but that’s beside the point here.) For the folks who speculate about hard AI, the idea of many minds in a single computer substrate is nothing new. The idea of a single mind arising within many organisms is the dual of this idea. And neither of these represents a general relationship: many minds spread out over many organisms.

A further terracentric assumption is based on the nature of DNA inheritance, which does not pass down adaptations learned by an organism during its lifetime. This is a contingent property of DNA, and it is certainly not a universal property of all chemical systems that arise to life. Indeed, a chemical substrate that allowed memories to be passed down to progeny would yield enormous competitive advantage, as it would in essence bypass much of the childhood development of the mind.

Alex Tolley January 3, 2016 at 14:24


I don’t think “neural interfaces” are going to be much of a thing at all, at least for highest order (cognitive) communication.

I disagree with you here. There are quite a few cognitive functions that we take a long time to process because they are not matched to the pattern recognition approach our brains evolved. An easy example is a logic problem, that has to be [painfully] worked out and which our limited short term memories mean very limited problems can be tackled. A logic processor would make such problems more again to the feeling of pattern recognition, with the answer being revealed very quickly. I also think that while trivial, a “Watson interface” would give anyone a top achieving Jeopardy score – IOW, very fast recall that would almost allow real time conversations.

Alex Tolley January 3, 2016 at 14:37

@John Walker
Merriam Webster
1 a : a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained b : the culture characteristic of a particular time or place

2 : the process of becoming civilized

3 a : refinement of thought, manners, or taste b : a situation of urban comfort

I am not clear at all how you might create a civilization without intelligence. While intelligence sits on a sliding scale, it is pretty clear to humans that only we have attained civilization after 3+ bn years of evolution. If it was attainable without intelligence, it certainly hasn’t been evident on Earth. The features that we call civilization require social organization, which requires planning and cooperation, plus the ability to create novelty. Without that last we are left with termite mound “cities” or coral reef “cities”, the result of self organization at a rather simple level. If culture is there, it isn’t evident. I could see “art” automatically produced, much as a computer might produce, but it would take evolutionary time to change. Such “civilization” might be million, possibly hundreds of millions of years old, but its lack of intelligence would mean that we could hardly interact with it at all.

Perhaps you could flesh out your thoughts on a civilization built without intelligences, explaining what you would expect the minimum such a civilization would show, as well as the level of intelligence needed to create it, and on what sort of timescale?

Alex Tolley January 3, 2016 at 14:49

@Michael Hutson

Dolphins do also use some sort of symbols to identify individuals, although it is possible they are describing a picture of part of the individual, like “big left flipper”.

If dolphins use sonar to paint pictures, then they have a problem of developing that language. Firstly they would have no way to distinguish colors when communicating, so they could say “move the red ball to the left of the blue ball.

Even more problematically, they could not communicate abstract thoughts. All communication would have to be concrete only.

Communicating in pictures is also going to be very inefficient. While we can use the word “swim” so that we can say “I swam to the other end of the reef”, a dolphin might have to show a full set of pictures showing that swimming and still be unable to communicate that it was an event that happened.

Experiment show that dolphins can be taught to associate short sounds with objects, so that implies to me that they can use symbols to understand, and therefore should be able to communicate that way as well. Maybe that is an example of what David Brin would call “uplift”.

Michael Chorost January 3, 2016 at 15:53

First let me say how grateful I am for all of your responses. The comment thread so far has over 12,000 words and it is full of excellent ideas. It is a great gift for a freelancer to get feedback like this. Since I’m not in a university context I don’t have colleagues down the hall with whom I can toss around ideas, so I appreciate this feedback all the more.

Let me respond to a number of points that came up repeatedly.

1. I’ve noticed a curious pairing of ideas: (a) the argument that animals have language that we simply haven’t figured out yet, and (b) the argument the aliens would be beyond our understanding. For an example of (a) Andrei writes, “We have so far failed to learn the ‘languages’ of beings on our own planet, and considering that we’ve coexisted for many thousands of years sharing both a biological, and historical heritage – we remain complete strangers to each other.”

For (b) Alex Tolley writes “As you suggest, we cannot communicate with almost all terrestrial life, and even with our closest relative, the Bonobo, we can barely hold much of a conversation.” Similarly, Dusan Maletic writes, “By the very definition of ET, whatever they are they will be alien to us in every aspect.”

I could paraphrase claims (a) and (b) like so: “Animals are different from us in degree but not in kind; but aliens will be different from us not in degree but in kind.”

There’s a noble politics behind the first claim. It’s the desire to quit exploiting animals because they are seen as “lesser” than us. I wholeheartedly agree with that agenda, but I think it’s a mistake to claim that animals have language the way humans do. As I said in the essay, they have communicative systems but not language, and those communicative systems refer directly to the immediate environment and cannot be used to make more general statements. The difference between communication systems and language is profound, and only one species on earth has the latter.

We are very used to this difference, so it is easy to believe, by analogy, that extraterrestrials will be “as far above us as we are above the animals.” In the book I call this the “2001 thesis” for obvious reasons. But the physicist David Deutsch brilliantly debunks it in his book The Beginning of Infinity. He writes, “But if the claim is that we may be qualitatively unable to understand what some other forms of intelligence can…then this is just another claim that the world is not explicable. Indeed, it is tantamount to an appeal to the supernatural” (p. 60.) Deutsch argues that since language can be used to express an effectively infinite number of statements, it can express anything — and that includes explanations of phenomena that would initially seem mysterious to us. Such explanations might take time, and careful breaking down of complex ideas into simpler ones known to be shared; for example, one could initially explain an iPhone to a medieval serf as “a device for talking to people far away.”

The point is, once a species has (a) language and (b) the understanding that anything is explainable in principle, it has what it needs to communicate with extraterrestrials that have the same, even if they are very different. To be sure, as Dusan Maletic writes, “Finally, even bigger problem author skips over is in alien societal and moral constructs. They need not be anything like ours.” Indeed. But even societal constructs are explainable in principle; they just will need a lot of explanation.

This brings me to the expanded definition of language offered by MP: “I think it’s the broader conception of the cognitive capacity, or set of capacities, that is of interest to you. It is less the rough elements used in a third-party description of speech practices and more the ability of particular agents to demonstrate certain abilities of communication and understanding (part of which is expressing thoughts and understanding other expressed thoughts).”

This I would totally agree with. Language is not just a set of primitives with syntax, it’s also the ability to imagine the mindset of a different mind and attempt to bridge that difference with explanations. If an alien species can’t do this despite apparently having a communication system, it is worth asking whether they really have language at all.

Naturally, any effort at all to imagine communication with aliens leaves one open to charges of anthropocentrism. Eric Hughes writes, “The “no” part of the essay is a classic case of a fallacy common in speculation at the edge of scientific endeavor: ‘I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t exist.’ I don’t know how to talk about where this fallacy arises from without tossing around words like ‘hubris’ and ‘arrogance’.”

Point well and warmly taken. Fish in water, meet air. Every single day – really, every actual single day, weekends included – I wonder if there is something basic that I am missing simply because I am limited to the sampling I have on Earth. It is of course possible. That is both the terror and the joy of this project. It is a thrill to try to peel away the local and specific to discern the universal. To know that one might be wrong, but to try anyway. I wouldn’t call it arrogance, though. Call it humble chutzpah.

One final point. (I’ve decided to post point 1 by itself, because if I wait to write them all it’s going to be weeks. More will follow.) Maybe there are highly advanced aliens with whom we would be fundamentally and epistemologically incommensurable, and would regard us as beneath their notice. If so, screw them. We humans are a lonely species. We don’t realize it because we’ve never known what it’s like not to be alone as a species, but I think we are lonely nonetheless. The kind of aliens I am interested in in this book are the kind we could have a conversation with despite our differences. In this book I am trying to imagine really, really big differences – and how we could bridge them.

Harold January 3, 2016 at 16:55

I don’t think the development of an intelligent civilization (or more generally social complexity) depends on a keystone attribute but instead requires a suite of attributes with each attribute increasing the effectiveness and utility of other attributes. If civilization is considered a tone, then attributes such as sentience, sapience, self-awareness, communication/language abilities and the ability to fabricate tools would be sliders on a sound mixing board. A civilization’s tone or chord can grow in complexity as long as an increase in the ability to do work of one attribute slider increases the ability to do work of another attribute slider. A civilization’s complexity can also plateau.
Consider dolphins, whales, and elephants and their threshold for social complexity. All three have brains complex enough to deliver high slider values for sentience, sapience and self-awareness. Dolphins and whales especially are equipped with communication tools capable of supporting language (infinite workload definition). If dolphins and whales can transmit sonar pictographs and videos and also vocalize, then there is nothing they couldn’t say to each other; from “That is a lot of herring” through “I prefer herring to krill” to “I am lonely”. However, the dolphin, whale and elephant slider labeled tool fabrication requires a huge amount of force to move. Even though they could easily create a word for the atom, they will never develop the tools required to discover the atom. Dolphin, whale, and elephant civilization could have plateaued at the level of a hunter gatherer society with only an oral tradition. If we developed the technology to translate sonar pictographs, we should be able to converse with dolphins about herring and even understand which of their thousand ‘words’ for water and swim is appropriate for formal gatherings, but there may be uniquely dolphin abstracts that we could never translate into a human equivalent.

A complex society or civilization that communicates chemically would be even more difficult to communicate with. Some basic, more literal communication would still be theoretically possible.

david lewis January 3, 2016 at 16:57

Ants already engage in: farming, city building, warfare, trade, and slavery. At least according to this link: Almost makes them sound just like us.

While it would be slow, I fail to see why ants couldn’t just communicate via sound – their total mass would allow hundreds of millions of “people” of human-level intelligence. But given they’re one of most successful species on earth, why would they need that level of intelligence? Energy spent on something like creativity would have to come from somewhere else, such as foraging, and they could very well be wiped out before that creativity produced anything of value. This could be a very difficult filter for species to pass.

Or perhaps ants do have some sort of hive intelligence, and we just can’t recognize it. While one species can study another, and maybe learn a lot, I’m not sure we will be able to actually understand each other. ie. Psychopaths are pretty much the same as us, just lacking in empathy. We share the same physical form, the same history, and even the same language, yet I’m not sure one them could understand one of us, and I know I couldn’t understand one of them when it comes to emotions.

With true aliens the range of emotions could be entirely different. Evolution might have left hate and rage out of their makeup as being too destructive, while “something” like empathy might’ve been included. Whether to fight, or make peace, could be entirely products of logic for them, unlike us humans.

But then, since psychopaths are our future, let’s hope any aliens that expect empathy from us are also quite adept at defending themselves.

Harold January 3, 2016 at 17:18

“Dolphins are intelligent, but they do not accumulate knowledge and therefore have no culture, no civilization, no technology.” Eniac

Knowledge can be accumulated via an oral history/tradition. Thousands of years of the development of human civilization depended upon oral tradition to accumulate and preserve knowledge. However, I do think there is a limit to how complex a culture or civilization could become if it only had access to story telling to preserve and accumulate knowledge.

There is also growing evidence that whales and dolphins do pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. How much of that knowledge transfer depends upon vocalizations or pictographs is unclear.

Andrei January 3, 2016 at 22:03

Thank you for getting back to us Mr Michael Chorost. :)
And I got quoted even, thank you, it’s always nice to know when I add something useful. :)

You are correct in that the calls animals make most often do “refer to the immediate environment” And that to our knowledge none have the ability to make any “general statement”. So the word ‘animal language’ can be debated and might be a question for those who are keen on semantic definitions.

However, it has been found that some widely different species actually do display the ability of abstract thinking. (And even to tell lies.) None do however have a language to match that with actual statements, their vocabulary is simply too limited. Instead it’s done by physical interaction.

It’s interesting to note that for some other species, a certain call can have a different meaning depending on the environment or situation.
So they show a bit of the flexibility that we humans have in using calls/language. I mentioned one species of Jay that sometime use a string of different sounds, when I googled for information about birds using syntax I came upon articles about the Australian Chestnut-crowned babbler. It got only 2 sounds which it combines for different meanings.

I agree that if there’s a supercivilization that is so advanced that they think they have nothing to say to us, make the question moot. And a less interesting story to tell.

If they on he other hand do wish to communicate, they might have an agenda of their own, that even if it is well meant could be the potentially greatest threat to humanity ever.
Lets say that they might wish to spread their philosophy (if it’s a religion or not will make no difference).
Since this philosophy have been thought up under a very long time, and by far more advanced beings that it might be received as one ultimate truth since the arguments are so convincing and gloriously revealing and therefore get quickly and widely accepted.

It is hard to make the point of why this would be so dangerous by giving examples, because such a asymmetric situation have never occurred in human history. Yet christian missionaries that have spread their faith to isolated native peoples have in some cases ended with a catastrophic result for those peoples..
In a few other cases the natives have developed a cargo cult from their first contact experience. Here I’d like to mention a story by Arkady and Boris Strugatski where humans find alien artifacts left by a far superior civilization which gets collected and bought for extremely high prices.
Whereas they are nothing more than the equivalent to thrown away picnic mugs and paper plates, hence the title ‘Roadside Picnic’.
So that idea have already gotten a good treatment once. But might be one to consider.

I think we would have an easier time and interest for communication if the alien species lived in an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere and have at least a superficial physical resemblance to us. Perhaps even using sounds that are in the hearing range for both species. But that would not make for any unusual interesting alien, and of a kind that I am certain have been described many times before.

So I think it would be more interesting if the aliens have their origin in one radically different environment, (what about having your insectoids live on the depleted core of a hot Jupiter instead? High temperature environment, complex carbon with rocks of diamond.) Perhaps even have them show surprise that beings with our chemistry and temperature range can develop and even create a civilization since they have found simple life on other worlds of that type. Since to them, their environment would be the natural one. And ours would be the oddball.

Michael Chorost January 3, 2016 at 23:56

Okay, point 2. I loved the ideas people came up with for long-term information storage. These ideas will help me solve a crucial problem: how insect colonies would invent the equivalent of writing.

For example, Jon A. Bell wrote,

Just as bees communicate with “dances,” what if an ant-like species could lay down pheromone trails within their own nests that formed patterns with meaning? In short, they’re “writing” characters which could be maintained by “scribes” who occasionally refresh, annotate or “erase” the patterns (perhaps with a different type of “null” pheromone.) “Reading” the information would be not-unlike walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, and an army of scribes over generations could be responsible for remembering their own small sections of the entire encyclopedia — no one “ant” would have to memorize the entire thing. It’s basically decentralized biological “cloud” storage.

Michael wrote,

The hard shell of the insect could be used to store information such as words, visual, or in grooves that could be once strung make a sound like a gramophone record. Nothing stops them using mud to form shapes and signs as well so we can’t say no on that front…Ants much smaller could store a very large amount of information using these knots, they could also make use of their digestive and defensive chemicals to etch information into stone as well.

Alex Tolley wrote,

There is no reason why such insects could not use their “extended phenotype” to store information, as we do with clay tablets. books, etc. Just as we no longer rely on memory for long term information storage, especially information that must be stored and retrieved with high fidelity, the insects could do the same. As terrestrial insects can manipulate cellulose (e.g. paper wasps) I see no reason why paper as a storage medium couldn’t be created quite easily with a minimum of technology input.

I like the idea of more permanent storage by creating artifacts to store information. One very simple idea strikes me, that would work for a limited information store would be to store information as occupancy of cells in a beehive. Cells could be given signals that allow or dissuade eggs to be placed in the cells, thus creating a readable binary storage device. Crude, low storage capacity, hugely resource intensive, but conceptually possible. Other binary storage could be dome, e.g. laying down bumps or pits in the walls of the nest. Insects passing these walls could “read” and act on the information, while others could modify it (“write”). Finally, just as we store information in DNA, it might be possible for some lifeforms to read/write DNA outside their cells, offering a high density long term storage mechanism. One way this might work is to store special “genes” in a cell that when read, sends out serial signals (electrical/chemical) that could be perceived by the organism. Our terrestrial DNA/RNA read rates are far to fast for this to work, but perhaps it could be done by other methods, perhaps perceiving and interpreting unique sequences of DNA/RNA/protein directly and holistically with chemical sensors.

Dispatcher wrote,

Perhaps in an aquatic environment, the transfer of information could be realized by releasing chemicals in general or pheromones in particular into the ambient liquid such that trails are not required, only chemical saturation sequences; this not requiring direction but only proximity.

These ideas are so helpful and I am grateful to each of you.

A point to note: Long-term memory and writing are not the same thing. Long-term memory is purely for the use of an individual cognitive entity. It doesn’t have to be linguistic in nature: it can be memories of sensations, motor actions, and environmental information such as the location of food. Writing, on the other hand, is for sharing information between individuals, and is linguistic by definition. I had made no progress at all on the issue of writing and these ideas are hugely helpful. This helps me characterize social insect colonies as a civilization, not simply as an intelligent species.

An important thing to note is that writing is a much slower method of information storage than long-term memory. I’ll be writing about timescale in a future comment.

NS January 4, 2016 at 4:00

Re David Deutsch, at the risk of paraphrasing a paraphrase of something I haven’t read, what some are claiming here is not “we may be qualitatively unable to understand what some other forms of intelligence can”, but rather that we may not be able to understand the other intelligence’s understanding. The problem isn’t comparable to explaining a cellphone to a medieval serf as “a device for talking to people far away”. It’s one of trying to communicate anything at all, possibly with something that has no concepts of “device”, “talking”, “people”, and/or “far away”.

Joe Morris January 4, 2016 at 10:15

I still think you’re going down a wrong path. I still don’t believe a hive mind can develop a technical civilization. You need to look at what the prevalent theories are for the development of human civilization and, more importantly, human intelligence. There’s a reason why humans invented tools and elephants and dolphins haven’t. It’s more than brain size. There’s a reason why humans have a complex spoken language that can depict abstract concepts and dolphins and elephants haven’t. there animals that use tools but none other than humans that make or made stone axes and knives and then harnessed fire.

There’s a unique combination of evolutionary developments that occurred that led to where we are. Now will all ETs follow our line of evolution. Maybe not. But remember large insects ruled the Earth for millions of years and yet none developed a civilization. Our intelligence was driven by bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb, a high brain size to mas ratio, and one other attribute that is not often mention, many individuals with different interests and abilities. You don’t get that in a hive mind. Our civilization has been driven by the remarkable individual, while sustained by the average ones. You can put Alexander the Great, Thomas Edison, Jesus, Albert Einstein, and Mozart into the remarkable category.

The importance of an opposable thumb cannot be underestimated. Watch a toddler who hasn’t mastered holding the crayon between his thumb bad forefinger try to draw. I dare you to try to carve a stone axe without a thumb and binocular vision. The development of tools led to the development of a spoken language.

Yes, dolphins and elephants are intelligent, but at best they are at the hunter-gatherer level and will never progress beyond that.

Now I can see a story where a hive mind insect species has somehow developed into one where each insect has some free will and thoughts but are constrained by the hive mind they still belong to. Then the story is about how these individuals struggle to overcome the restrictions of the hive mind. Along comes humans with their individuality. The hive mind perceives us as a threat while the individuals struggle to emulate humans.

Keith Cooper January 4, 2016 at 11:12

Michael, when you talk about language, I assume forefront in your mind is vocalisation or pictograms. If aliens speak a language, like in Star Trek, then we could probably learn to understand it. Of course, not all language has to be spoken or written. We have visual sign language, and braille is a language based on touch. So we use our other senses too. Aliens might use sign language, for example, if they don’t have vocal chords. Again, we’d probably be able to figure it out.

But what happens when the language is ‘spoken’ through the use of a sense that we humans lack? Dogs communicate largely through smells far too subtle for humans to detect. Dolphins of course use echo location; granted it’s not a language but a sufficiently intelligent creature may utilise complex echo signals as a language. Of course, we can detect dolphins’ signals with technology, and we could do the same with an alien lifeform using that same means of communication. I still think there would be a difficulty here though. A lifeform that views their world through echo location, or which views the world in some other part of the em spectrum, or uses some other means of communication beyond our five senses, would experience the world in a completely different way to us, and surely language is just as much about context as it is about information? We understand computer code because we’ve written it, but imagine a language constructed by AIs and used purely for communication between them in their world – how would we go about understanding that if there is no common context?

If we can’t understand the context in which ET lives their lives and speak their language, then it seems to me we’re going to have a really hard time understanding them. Add in cultural and technological differences that are way beyond our experience, and it will become doubly hard.

Then there’s the stuff that Laurance Doyle at the SETI Institute is looking at, Zipf’s Law and Shannon entropy and the possible complexity of advanced communication. Maybe it will be possible to bridge the communication differences between us and them, but it might have to be a really big bridge. Maybe if they are super-duper advanced they can recognise this and bring themselves down to our level a bit to help us. Plus, since the laws of physics are the same across the known Universe, then simple maths and physics might be a good starting point.

I’m reminded of the episode of Star Trek TNG where Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien that speaks only in metaphor – so there is already a cultural impact on the language. Now imagine that this alien language of metaphor is spoken via echo location or through smells. Then add in 15th or 20th order Shannon entropy with all kinds of jumping time tenses and clauses. And its spoken by some kind of higher intelligence or AI in the context of their artificially constructed world in which they live. I’m not saying it will necessarily be impossible to understand some of what they say, especially if they help us, but I think it is more of a challenge than is implied by saying that if you have language you can explain anything.

RobFlores January 4, 2016 at 12:21

I am Sorry to be so late to this fascinating topic. To put a capstone, on this this thread I will add the following.

I agree Insects could evolve to have short range connecting “apparatus” to enable them to intermittently be in plugged in as one organism. All that would be required is a method to ‘Pause and remember” when the collective though begins again.

Another route to insect arising as intelligences (my vote is for social spiders BTW) is to look at the structure of fire ant colonies. SEVERAL
QUEENS live cooperatively to make the whole more powerful. This is not very common in Ant societies. If the queens where themselves to have mental contact with each other they might start a path to sentience. Imagine 100 queens linked and controlling 100000 units. I think a more efficient communication system to the ‘units’ than pheromones would be required to attain human level capabilities however.
IMO, given enough time and space insects would be in mix for higher intelligence, one more Major evolutionary development besides long term memories is needed, an true circulatory system tied to respiratory system
using the analogue of LUNGS. In their present form I don’t think ants can
become sentient.

Alex Tolley January 4, 2016 at 13:39

@Michael Chorost

A point to note: Long-term memory and writing are not the same thing. Long-term memory is purely for the use of an individual cognitive entity. It doesn’t have to be linguistic in nature: it can be memories of sensations, motor actions, and environmental information such as the location of food. Writing, on the other hand, is for sharing information between individuals, and is linguistic by definition.

I disagree that writing is just for sharing information between individuals. Writing, and other tools, are useful just to the individual. A trivial example is writing down lists both to prevent overloading limited short term memory and to avoid the effort of memorizing trivia in LTM. There is no intention to share that information. Use of such external tools can be used as memory aids, as well as for solving some problems – the classic case is assembling a jigsaw puzzle with the actual pieces, rather than trying to do this mentally only.

While I agree LTM and writing (external tools) are different, because tools can substitute for LTM, we should not make the binary distinction between them. Another example might be way finding. We use real world reference points to aid us, rather than keeping all the information in memory. In the case of ants, the waypoints are marked chemically, which is not so dissimilar to mammals marking their territory boundaries.

The question is how many of these tools, used as communication and memory aids, are needed for a recognizable civilization to flourish, rather than being halted at some level of cpmplexity?

Alex Tolley January 4, 2016 at 14:00

@Joe Morris

Our intelligence was driven by bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb, a high brain size to mas ratio, and one other attribute that is not often mention, many individuals with different interests and abilities. You don’t get that in a hive mind.

One reason bipedalism developed was to free up our forelimbs for manipulation. There are other theories for bipedalism too. Kangaroos and birds are bipedal, but do not have manipulative hands.
Binocular vision may be purely a trait needed for hunting. I do not see why it would be needed for civilization. If you are implying that it is needed to aid in manipulation, it is worth noting that octopi are not binocular, but have very manipulative tentacles. Regarding opposable thumbs, this is just the method we use for grasping. Again, this is just one solution.

The issue of creative individuals is more interesting. Essentially this is the mechanism for cultural evolution to happen quickly, by being inventive. However humans as a whole are remarkably inventive, and I am not convinced that a few very inventive individuals trumps all individuals being inventive. If insects had large enough brains to be inventive, could that allow them to develop civilization? Would the “individual” be the hive in this case, much as human organizations rather than individuals are the units that drive innovation? Society also dictates norms for which directions inventiveness can be expressed. Societies can be very conforming, a resurgence of which we are seeing right now.

While I think Terran history might be indicative of insect potential, I don’t think we should use that as a straight jacket to define what is possible and what is not. Large, brainy arthropod-like aliens, with hive minds shouldn’t be ruled out of being able to create civilization under the right evolutionary circumstances. We should also be aware that from an evolutionary perspective, we are not that different from our ancestors of 100,000 years ago, but the cultural explosion that started 40-80,000 years ago appears suddenly without any obvious evolutionary change. We might look back and argue why did all the evolutionary features in place a million or so years ago not result in civilization, and that civilizations only started flowering around 10,000 years ago. This suggests some cultural change or changes that proved advantageous got the ball rolling only relatively recently. Aliens arriving 50,000 years ago might write of homo as missing some ingredient[s] for civilization given all teh time they had to develop it.

Alex Tolley January 4, 2016 at 14:47

Epigenetic Alterations Determine Ant Behavior

Interesting reserach showing behavior is affected by the epigenome. We can imagine a “Brave New World” of ant civilization where roles are made more adaptable by modifying the epigenome of individuals. Need warriors for a war – just modify your workers, rather than breed new soldier class ants.

If various behavioral repertoires and components could be similarly modified, there is the possibility of trying out new combinations of behaviors, a proxy for creativity, and cultural change, perhaps?

Eniac January 4, 2016 at 15:01


“Dolphins are intelligent, but they do not accumulate knowledge and therefore have no culture, no civilization, no technology.” Eniac

Knowledge can be accumulated via an oral history/tradition. Thousands of years of the development of human civilization depended upon oral tradition to accumulate and preserve knowledge.

Exactly. That is how it began, with the ability to tell stories. To contemporaries, so knowledge can be spread, and to children, so it can be preserved and accumulated.

Humans are unique in having this ability, to the best of our knowledge. It is the root of culture, civilization and technology, all.

Eniac January 4, 2016 at 15:06


There is also growing evidence that whales and dolphins do pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. How much of that knowledge transfer depends upon vocalizations or pictographs is unclear.

It is unclear whether this occurs much at all, certainly it does not occur to the extent that knowledge is accumulated faster than it is lost. This is the key, and it is what makes for the sharp demarcation between humans and animals.

Eniac January 4, 2016 at 15:16

Alex Tolley:

I don’t think “neural interfaces” are going to be much of a thing at all, at least for highest order (cognitive) communication.

I disagree with you here. There are quite a few cognitive functions that we take a long time to process because they are not matched to the pattern recognition approach our brains evolved. An easy example is a logic problem, that has to be [painfully] worked out and which our limited short term memories mean very limited problems can be tackled. A logic processor would make such problems more again to the feeling of pattern recognition, with the answer being revealed very quickly. I also think that while trivial, a “Watson interface” would give anyone a top achieving Jeopardy score – IOW, very fast recall that would almost allow real time conversations.

I don’t think there is disagreement here. Both of the things you mention are enhancements, not interfaces, and both can be used without being directly connected to the brain. I am not totally sure what you mean by a “logic processor” but I suggest a calculator as a more intuitive example. The human brain is bad at calculations, which is why we have calculators. My point was that is would probably not help much to implant a calculator in the brain, vs. holding it in your hands, because we can type and read the numbers just as fast as we can incorporate them into our (slow-moving) thoughts, anyway. A neural interface, whether by plug or implantation, doesn’t accomplish much.

Harold January 4, 2016 at 15:48

Please be patient with another mention of dolphins, I will talk about insects in a moment. When we consider whether or not dolphins could be using language (using the definition Michael Chorost expanded upon in the comments), we also need to consider what artifacts would their use of language produce and what effect does asymmetrical sense suites have on translation or even identifying language use. For instance, a dolphin could use sonar pictographs to tell a human the story of “The pup that pictopraghed-chirped shark” (concrete symbols used to describe abstract concepts) without the human being aware that there was any linguistic work being done. The ability to tell such stories would offer an evolutionary benefit to dolphins. The problem posed by asymmetrical senses would be even more pronounced when attempting to identify and translate chemical syntax and symbols. An insect civilization could use a chemical language to describe their creation myth and humans may just sneeze.

The use of language will not be enough to indicate a species has crossed the threshold between culture and civilization. Perhaps the distinction between culture and civilization could be understand in a way similar to the distinction between communication and language, as a distinction between workload potentials. Culture would help a species cope with their environment but civilization would allow a species to potentially transcend their environment. Civilization would allow a species to develop new traits and tools at a rate orders of magnitude faster that natural selection and open environments that natural selection would never make available.

Social Insect Civilization!

I think the emergence and evolution of external information storage would require very long duration hive structures that are not vulnerable to being destroyed or heavily damaged by predators or the weather. Would a planet or moon that maintained insect-types as the dominant, apex predator be too far fetched?
I like the idea offered about using pheromones and chemicals to write and preserve information. Picture a hive structure designed like Stonehenge with the sun entering or heating different avenues and/or chambers as seasons progressed. The heat would activate pheromones and chemicals with those avenues and chambers that could tell an incest species that now is the time to move those “lady bugs” or now is the time to harvest. If a social insect that practices husbandry of one species is able to become more efficient at extracting energy from that one species, then that social insect has energy to expand the number of species that it husbands; further increasing the demand for greater intelligence.

Eniac January 4, 2016 at 16:38

Joe Morris:

Our intelligence was driven by bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb, a high brain size to mas ratio, and one other attribute that is not often mention, many individuals with different interests and abilities. You don’t get that in a hive mind.

As Alex says, it is not really clear which, if any, of these is a requirement for intelligence. Of those you mention, the individual diversity and brain size seem the most relevant, to me. I think the primary benefit of intelligence is the ability to outwit others (be it prey, predators, or peers), which requires no particular physical manipulation skills.

The development of tools led to the development of a spoken language.

Not necessarily. There are many important things to talk about besides tools.

Alex Tolley:

One reason bipedalism developed was to free up our forelimbs for manipulation. There are other theories for bipedalism too. Kangaroos and birds are bipedal, but do not have manipulative hands.

Right. Most likely, it has to do with elevating the eyes to see over obstacles, which would have been beneficial after the tree to ground transition.

Binocular vision may be purely a trait needed for hunting

The primary purpose of binocular vision comes from our tree-dwelling history. If you miss grasping the next branch, you are dead meat on the ground. I agree it probably has little to do with tool use and nothing with intelligence. The hand part of grasping, on the other hand, is likely to have been a strong enabler of tool use.

Steven Torry Rappolee January 4, 2016 at 17:15

My Blog post that discussed Oxygen rich waters and large cephalopods that neurologically connected together with an evolved reproductive tentacle was chosen in the hope that intelligence and “civilization” maybe requires “consciousness”
This so called emergent property is something that is not clear to me would exist in AI or Von Neumann machines so perhaps it is possible to have a civilization of small social insects(low oxygen world) that would appear to us as a civilization(recognize this theory? ) After all if the AI and Von Neumann machines are advanced(evolving) software without self awareness then civilization does not need this treat to come about.
So how to bring about the cephalopod emergent property?
(A)(1) The tentacle reproductive organ or hectocotylus could evolve to make synaptic connects with the other organism
(A)(2) in some cephalopods the hectocotylus is left inside the female so imagine a hectocotylus with one of the males brain lobs inside.
(A)(3) this would be a slow thinking superorganism augmented by communication of the skin coloration patterns.

Hiro January 4, 2016 at 17:55

From my point of view, a colony of 1 million ants is not the same as a group of 1 million connected “mini AI” that intelligence level of each one is equivalent to an ant. By the way, the latter one is reachable in several decades and we have to deal with it whether we like it or not.

We usually test the lesser intelligent species by using the “mirror test”, and then an extreme low standard “Turing test” will be applied to those passed the first one.

Michael Chorost January 4, 2016 at 19:02

Alex Tolley, in your comments you wrote:

The insects do not have to be static or even connected to create a synaptic network. By recognizing unique insects, either by sight or chemical encoding, any insects can preferentially connect with any other. The frequency being the “synaptic strength”…As for learning, as long as individuals are “addressable” a network can be created. Imagine a human organization, made up of individuals who are contactable by phone. Each individual is connected to some subset n of the others. If reward/punishment signals based on some environmental input (profits?) are sent down the phone lines, and each individual changes his message (“great, do more”…”awful, do less”) in response to the the messages he receives, the organization should learn just like an ANN [artificial neural network].

This was a very interesting point. I have been pondering it. Let me give you a little more background on what I’m thinking.

A human brain has roughly 700 trillion synapses (estimates vary; this is the one I’ve used.) Let’s say this is the minimum number of synapses a brain needs for language in the sense I’ve defined it – a large discrete vocabulary, a grammar, and the ability to make and understand explanations. I guess that if the human brain could have been smaller, it would be because brains are expensive – ours takes up about 20% of resting calories. So let’s say that a language-using mind needs a minimum of 700 trillion synapses.

In a human brain, a given neuron can have thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of synapses. This is possible because the dendritic arbor branches out very finely. Let’s say a rough average of 7,000 synapses per neuron.
Now if you accept my limbs-to-synapses hypothesis, at first you would get six synapses per larva, since they each have six legs. Add the antennae for eight synapses. Now let’s say the larvae are more like centipedes with hundreds of legs and their bodies are coiled tightly in the honeycombs; now you get hundreds of synapses per larva. Add in some branching, and let’s say that each larva has 2,000 synapses. That means you could support 700 trillion synapses with 350 billion larvae.

That’s a lot of larvae. Eniac objected,

I think the main problem with your idea of insects (or larva) as the “neurons” of a collective brain is simply one of numbers. There are 100 billion neurons in a human brain, and an average ant colony has only a few thousand individuals. That is a huge gap, and I don’t see how it could possibly be bridged. There are very likely physical limits to the size and density of an ant colony that make it fall short of the size and connectivity of a human brain by many orders of magnitude.

But there are known “supercolonies” that have billions of insects, maybe even a trillion – see here:

Those stretch out over thousands of miles. But if 350 billion larvae were packed closely together, how much room would they take up? I worked it out with a spreadsheet: if you add a fudge factor of 6 to account for space between sheets of honeycombs, tunnels, middens, queens, workers, and so on, you could pack them into a sphere 413 feet in diameter. That’s roughly the size of a large apartment complex.

So that gives you an order-of-magnitude estimate. Now, given this, could the larvae form a network without physical connections? Most human neurons connect only to immediate neighbors, though there are also long axonal connections that traverse inches to another part of the brain entirely, and those are critically important. (It’s a small-world network.) Given that, what mechanism could the larvae use to send discrete packets of signals to their neighbors? Sound seems improbable; you’d have so much accumulated energy that signals would get drowned out in the cacophony. Vision is out because it’s dark in there; even if you used bioluminescence any individual signal would get swamped in a sea of light. I think chemical signals are improbable because they fail a criterion linguists call “transitoriness” – to be effective, a signal has to exceed background noise *and* disappear quickly, otherwise again it gets swamped.

The advantage of wired connections is that they can be insulated against their background (that’s what myelin does.) In the example you mentioned of humans talking over telephones, again that would work only if they’re far enough apart that they can each hear each other against the background. Given this, I’m having a hard time seeing how non-wired connections could really work inside a mass of tightly packed larvae. But maybe I’m missing something. Can you elaborate?

BTW, I think we met at SciFoo – I know we corresponded by email back in May 2014.

Joe Morris January 4, 2016 at 19:26

Binocular vision may have originally developed to avoid predators but it also plays a role in the depth perception required to work on tools. There is actually a bit of a debate as to what drove bipedalism, whether it was to see over the grass or to have hands free to carry things. Or parallel requirements helped drive it.
So I’ll try to re-iterate my point. There’s intelligence and there’s intelligence. Humans have developed a civilization, a tool using one, with language because of a juncture of a number of attributes that made our intelligence different or move beyond that of, say, the dolphin. These included brain-to-body mass ratio; bipedalism freeing our hands for grasping, carrying and making tools; binocular vision that not only helped detect predators but helped us refine tools; opposable thumbs for tool making and writing; language for societal development and to pass on complex concepts for tools. There is also belief that being an omnivore, particularly eating meat, helped provide the calories and protein for brain development. I also add to that our genetic diversity that gives humans different capabilities. No other animal in the three plus billion years of life on this planet had this unique combination of attributes. That’s why there are human cities strewn across the planet, not dolphin nor elephant nor dinosaur.

I still don’t buy the idea of a hive intelligence reaching a technical level. I will repeat my claim it lacks the diversity of thought to come up with cockamamie ideas like domesticating animals, planting seeds, and developing the wheel, no less developing quantum theory.

Dave Moore January 4, 2016 at 19:37

Just a thought about the planet. Have checked what the tides are on it. And what the tidal heating of the planets lithosphere would be?

Eniac January 4, 2016 at 19:40

But what happens when the language is ‘spoken’ through the use of a sense that we humans lack?

Whenever I come across this “trans-sensory” argument, I am compelled to remember the blind. They lack our most important sense, and yet they are not only intelligent, but fully able to converse with the seeing as intellectual equals. There are weaknesses, of course, such as when talking about colors, or the visual arts, but those are hardly incapacitating

Besides, language as we know it is independent of sensory form. English, for example, can be understood through the eyes (print), the ears (speech), and the fingers (Braille).

Jim Vassilakos January 4, 2016 at 21:10

I’m told that a typical human brain has something on the order of 100 billion neurons which form 100-1000 trillion synapses. In your article you suggest that insect larvae could play the role of one or the other. In any case, what is the largest number of larvae in an insect colony on Earth? I’m going to guess somewhat less than a million. Even if you group together a thousand such colonies and call them a mega-colony, at some entomologists have done, you’re still not getting close to the computational power of a single human brain. Hence, I’m thinking that an insect hive would have a pretty hard time attaining human-level intelligence. Likewise, its “computations” would likely be much slower than than of a human brain, since the computational units would likely be spread out over many miles… perhaps even hundreds or thousands of miles. Furthermore, a single human brain or even a dozen does not make a civilization in the sense that we think of the term. Certainly, I couldn’t imagine a dozen humans getting together and putting a man on the moon all by themselves. Hence, given the seemingly insurmountable limitations of this type of intelligence compared to the computational power that we believe human-level intelligence would require, I just don’t see how this could work. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting thought-experiment, so I thank you for the article.

Michael Chorost January 4, 2016 at 22:51

Joe Morris wrote,

“Our intelligence was driven by bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb, a high brain size to mass ratio…You don’t get that in a hive mind…The importance of an opposable thumb cannot be underestimated. Watch a toddler who hasn’t mastered holding the crayon between his thumb and forefinger try to draw. I dare you to try to carve a stone axe without a thumb and binocular vision. The development of tools led to the development of a spoken language.”

Joe adds, more strongly, “I still don’t buy the idea of a hive intelligence reaching a technical level. I will repeat my claim it lacks the diversity of thought to come up with cockamamie ideas like domesticating animals, planting seeds, and developing the wheel, no less developing quantum theory.”

I’ve thought about this a lot. I totally agree with Joe. On Earth, hominin-type intelligence was partly driven by bodies having problems to solve, like running without falling over and computing trajectories for throwing things. And it seems like a colony of insects wouldn’t have a body in any real sense. Its workers can move and assemble nests, but the colony can’t move as a whole, let alone pick things up or bang things together. If a bunch of bugs can’t pick up a hammer, how can it develop a civilization?

Or language? Linguists have done a lot of work understanding the role of the body in the evolution of language. The work usually goes by the label of embodied cognition, that is, the theory that language evolved by adapting brain functions that originally developed to solve problems of motion and manipulation. There is a very cool piece of evidence that language depends on the brain’s motor and somatosensory cortices.

Let me first explain the concept of simulation. Many linguists think the brain understands sentences like The writer kicked the table by igniting neural clusters that activate memories of writers, kicking, and tables. It simulates the described action and thereby understands it. Or take the sentence Harry picked up the glass. “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” the linguist George Lakoff has written, “then you can’t understand that sentence.”[1] Functional MRI experiments have actually shown that the brain simulates; when it hears a sentence like The writer kicked the table the part of it that controls the feet becomes active.

But what does the brain do with sentences that don’t describe motions or sensations? Take the sentence She’s had a rough time. No literal physical sensation is being described here. So does anything get simulated? In fact yes: to process the sentence the brain fires up texture-selective portions of its somatosensory cortex.[2] That’s because the sentence is metaphorical in at least two ways: the physical sensation of roughness is a metaphor for having a bad time; and the verb “to have” is a metaphor that experiences are things you can hold in your hands. Lakoff argues that even the most seemingly literal statements – including abstract mathematical ones – are ultimately processed by parts of the brain that evolved to manage the body.[3]

Lakoff doesn’t apply the argument to minds other than hominin ones, but I’ve tried to in the manuscript. I argue that language *has* to evolve by adapting cognitive functions originally developed to manage the body. I’m suggesting this will be as true on GJ832c as it is on Earth.

But insect colonies can’t move around. They don’t have hands. They don’t even have bodies as we would think of them. Their workers move around, yes, but even working collectively they couldn’t get much leverage on anything. Without the basic ability to move, intelligence doesn’t get problems to solve that can later be applied to language. And I think this the point that Joe is making.

The only solution I can see is that insect colonies would have to be rewarded, by natural selection, for developing ways of moving things around. Ways of picking up hammers. On planets with different pressures than here on Earth. I think I’ve worked out a solution extrapolating from bugs on Earth, and I think it’s much cooler than just developing giant workers or trying to coordinate a few thousand bugs. It’s late, so I’ll just hint at it here: we know that bugs’ brains can be parasitized and controlled by other organisms.[4]

[1] Gallese and Lakoff (2005), “The brain’s concepts: the role of the sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge.” Cogn Neuropsychol. 2005 May;22(3):455-79.
[2] Desai et al (2013), “A piece of the action: Modulation of sensory-motor regions by action idioms and metaphors.” NeuroImage 83: p. 862.
[3] Lakoff and Núñez (2000). Where Mathematics Comes From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being. Basic Books, p. 19.
[4] Lafontaine et al. “Microbiology: Zombie Ants with Dicrocoelium dendriticum.”

Michael Chorost January 4, 2016 at 22:55

Jim Vassilakos, I think I have an answer to your objection – search up for my comment that begins “Alex Tolley, in your comments you wrote”…

Alex Tolley January 4, 2016 at 23:25

@Michael Chorost
If we ignore the packing problem (that ant colony will get HOT), wiring the insects together to transmit electrical signals is the way to go, just as in the brain. My preferred solution would be to integrate the incoming signals via the antennae which have thousands of sensory hairs. Then the antennae or the brain could integrate the signals. The weights would be set at each anatnna sensory hair. Outward signals need to be fanned out to 1-10K individuals. Here I think that a web of conducting polymer might be the way to go. The insect transmits electrical signals to its spinneret which in turn send the signal pulses down the web to reach the next layer of antennae. Learning would use a recurrent network approach, rather than back propagation.

[The telephone model assumed everyone sitting in their quiet office answering the phone. Yes, people did once have those sorts of offices. This is effectively a wired network. If we substitute cellphones, the model still works, but there needs be no fixed office locations. This should make it clear that addressing is the key, not physical location]

In the case of insects, they could still move around, but only communicate “neural” signals with a discrete subset of other individuals. This communication need only be low bandwidth, but with enough storage to hold the communication information so that it can be integrated every so often. The thinking is slow (like the trees in Lord of the Rings) but no less intelligent, although reaction times might also be slow.

Also we don’t have to have each insect physically rub antennae with 1-10K others. Instead it could use intermediary insects whose job is to fan out by connecting to 10 others. 3 to 4 levels covers the fan out. This approach also can solve your small worlds network topology.

BTW, I think we met at SciFoo – I know we corresponded by email back in May 2014.

I don’t recall meeting you, but yes we did communicate about this same subject back in 2014.

While you are aiming for relatively high intelligence, my interests go more in the other direction: how simple can learning be made using a network. For example, could a grass lawn where the rhizomes create a network in the turf be sufficient to allow the lawn to be trained to recognize inputs, e.g. respond to patch patterns of over watering or herbicide?

One interesting alternative to networks is to have a liquid medium that deterministically transmits changes, rather like a cellular automaton. Then a set of simple perceptrons can be used to read the resulting liquid states and be trained on that. I always thought this might apply to the ocean in Lem’s Solaris. It certainly allows for a simpler system as the connections can be far fewer. For example, in the case of insects, each insect might just communicate with 4 others in the “liquid” component, and just a small number of insects need touch large numbers of insects in the liquid to resp0nd to the liquid state.

Ref on liquid state machines.

Joe Morris January 5, 2016 at 9:41


Thanks for the comment. I’ll reiterate a previous thought. What about a hybrid insect colony, one where individuals have some freedom of thought but are also still connected to the hive mind. Add to your idea of a parasite… In my novels I use a parasite called a Neary that infects human minds and adds some capabilities such as mind reading and mind control. You don’t need to g so far. A parasite somewhat disrupts the connection with the hive mind, forcing the workers to develop individual capabilities. Now there’s constant conflict between the independent parts and the hive. Along come humans who are completely independent and that really upsets the apple cart. Just a thought…

Michael Chorost January 5, 2016 at 21:59

Eniac took issue with my argument that a planet with 1.5 gees surface gravity would inhibit the development of mammals big enough to have brains with lots of synapses. To quote him or her:

“The effect of gravity on organisms goes up with the size by the power of 3/2 (mass goes with the 3rd, bone or muscle cross-section compensates with the square). This means that higher gravity can easily be compensated by smaller size. An organism half our size can circulate blood, run, leap or throw at 1.5 g better than we can at 1 g. Also, not being the largest animals on Earth, we are far from being limited by gravity, anyway. Thus, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that a slightly higher gravity at 1.5 g would be any sort of obstacle for the development of large-brained mammals.”

This is a very interesting observation. It tallies with Yvan Dutil and Stéphane Dumas’s conclusion in an article they wrote on the cost of launch from planets with different surface gravity from Earth. They pose the question, “Are some civilizations bound to their home planet because the local gravitational field is too strong?” They argue that the answer is no: “Cost for launching a satellite to low orbit is essentially independent of the planet of origin…As a general conclusion, the planet and star of origin of an extraterrestrial civilization are likely to have little importance in the development of its indigenous space exploration.” [1]

In addition, they point out that planets with more mass than Earth will also have more resources: “While the launch cost increases with the size of the planet, planet resources also increase even faster.” If GJ832c has the radius I’ve guessed, it would have 3.61 times the surface area of Earth. That would mean, potentially, that much more access to metals, fuels, and so forth.

I plan to ask Dutil and Dumas more about their argument. It’s a brief paper and, as they acknowledge, it has many simplifying assumptions.

It seems counterintuitive to me, I have to say. I bench-press about half my body weight at the gym. Many times I’ve walked around with those weights and wondered what it would be like to carry that extra load *all the time*. It makes me tired just to think about it. Launch is difficult enough at one gee; I find it hard to imagine doing it at 1.5 gees, and furthermore on a planet that doesn’t give you much of a rotational boost. And it seems that just walking around, and pumping blood, and so forth, would take so much more energy that it would drain away energy for serious cognition.

Nonetheless, I probably have to rethink that part of my argument. Thank you, Eniac, for the observation.

[1] Dutil, Yvan, and Dumas, Stéphane (2011). “Cost Analysis of Space Exploration for an Extraterrestrial Civilization.” In Vakoch, Douglas, ed. Communication With Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SUNY Press.

Sean M. Brooks January 6, 2016 at 11:32

A very interesting article indeed by Michael Chorost. I have nothing profound or novel to suggest here, only a kind of reverse analogy. The late Poul Anderson wrote a very interesting story called “The High Ones” about an intelligent non human race which DE-EVOLVED from being intelligent into becoming a hive species. The humans who discovered this race and their planet (which they called Zolotoy) had to fumble their way to realizing the Zolotoyans were no longer intelligent, but had become a hive species like our Terrestrial ants.

Sean M. Brooks

Michael M January 6, 2016 at 13:13

@Michael Chorost

‘In addition, they point out that planets with more mass than Earth will also have more resources: “While the launch cost increases with the size of the planet, planet resources also increase even faster.” If GJ832c has the radius I’ve guessed, it would have 3.61 times the surface area of Earth. That would mean, potentially, that much more access to metals, fuels, and so forth.’

Aside from the energy requirements to get to orbit from a higher g and a lower g world there are still a few issues about Red dwarfs. Once they are in space and away from their planets protective magnetic field the radiation outburst from the Star would be dangerous and unpredictable. There is also the issue of been deeper into the Stars gravity well for the same amount of light energy we get thus requiring more power and fuel to get out into the outer system and without a moon it would be even more difficult.

As for the increase in gravity a 50% increase in weight is not that great as the body adjusts to it by getting stronger. There is also the increase in pressure of the air allowing more oxygen to be available to the organism.

Alex Tolley January 6, 2016 at 15:33

@Michael M. Doesn’t a higher mass world with a higher surface gravity have a larger radius, and that this compensates for the energy needed to reach escape velocity? (My math may be wrong on this).

However, if the radius was the same as Earth, then the higher gravity might make a flight to orbit extremely difficult with chemical rockets, which in turn might keep such ETIs planet bound without other energy sources to achieve escape, e.g. nuclear engines.

Alex Tolley January 6, 2016 at 16:19

@Alex Tolley. My mistake. The higher surface gravity is no compensated by the larger radius. Therefore escape velocity is higher and the difficulty of using chemical rockets to achieve escape velocity is problematic.

Stan Erickson January 8, 2016 at 16:19

The question isn’t phrased very well, as what is the important thing is the independence of the individual life-forms. Not the resemblance to Earth life-forms such as insects. My take on this is that independent animals could evolve and then evolve further into colonies of low-independence creatures.

Eniac January 18, 2016 at 14:20

Michael Chorost: While gravity is absolutely not an obstacle to the development of large-brained mammals, it certainly is a problem for space travel. Just as it is much easier to reach orbit from, say, the surface of Mars, it would be much harder from a larger planet. As Alex has said, on Earth (11 km/s escape velocity) we are already near the limits of chemical rockets. A planet with, say, 20 km/s (like Uranus) would almost certainly put interplanetary space out of reach of chemical rockets. The rocket equation is a real killer: The required fuel/payload mass ratio depends exponentially on the escape velocity. Note that escape velocity rises faster with planet size or mass than surface gravity. In the case of Uranus, surface gravity is actually less than Earth’s, while the escape velocity is much higher.

To summarize: While gravity is a minor irritant for surface life, it is a major show stopper for space travel. I am not sure what exactly Dutil and Dumas are saying, but given these facts I would likely have to disagree with them.

Of course, on the other hand, neither we not any other technological civilization are limited to chemical rockets. We would likely still get into space with nuclear rockets a few decades later. Maybe this is what Dutil and Dumas had in mind, in which case I agree.

Etienne February 14, 2016 at 12:19

Hi Michael, I have nothing to add to your brillant idea of intelligence bubbling up from possible insects colonies on exoplanets, and to the numerous clever comments by distinguished readers. Your article was exciting reading on this cold and rainy winter day in France (14th Feb), I just wanted to thank you!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }