In how smart can I make ants, an idea was suggested, to instead of making each ant individually sapient, make the 'anthill' as a whole sapient; a kind of unconventional hive mind. Just as a familiar anthill is more like a single body whose organs happen to not be stuck together, my alien intelligence develops on the level of a colony. Just as a single brain cell is not a mind, a single bug is not sapient. To quote the accepted answer:

It is the level of a colony that has a single DNA and evolves as an animal. Individual workers are no different than our individual cells which are replaced from within as they wear out. The colony has intent and direction and will decide when to move or camp, flee or fight, discover new food resources and hold social relations with other colonies. The individual bugs communicate via hormones etc. just as the cells and organs within a body coordinate, but are one system.

In summary, the basic concept here is that hundreds of thousands (if not millions), of small creature are able to make up one big creature, in the same way cells make up humans. Ever since hearing this answer, I have become obsessed with this idea but I, as a hard-science fiction worldbuilder, must know if this concept is at all realistic. So, is this concept of a collective consciousness realistic? And if so, how would it develop from regular ants?

  • $\begingroup$ Let's suppose that you produce a population of humans, all of them which are clones of a single cherry-picked human model (let's call him Jango Fett). Wouldn't that fits into your idea? If not, why? $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2016 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ Not ants, but basically that's what's (in still a very basic way) "the internet" for us humans. $\endgroup$ Jun 24, 2016 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ It might be necessary to work up a physical description of a "consciousness". E.g., does one have a physical boundary? We seem pretty sure that ours exists somehow within the physical boundaries of our brains, but does it? I've toyed with the question: Is consciousness made of the particles or the fields? If fields, then does 'boundary' have real meaning? Maybe pheromones could extend the fields in a useful way? Trouble is we have no good idea what consciousness "is". $\endgroup$ Jun 24, 2016 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ Define consciousness. What is consciousness and what isn't. $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Jun 24, 2016 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ Are you talking about a collective intelligence aren't you. $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Jun 24, 2016 at 8:03

8 Answers 8


Hmm, this started out as a comment but got better. Perhaps the colony did not develop intelligence as a first step, but became something more, first.

Look at the analogous question: how did a biofilm of eucaryote cells stuck together become sentient? Well, not directly as one thing. Multicellular life developed, with increased specialization of different cell types and tissue forming encapsulated organs. One organ specialized in information processing, developing from tissue whose role is to distribute and process signals.

So, a mass of ants is like a biofilm. Increased specialization with different types of ants and coherent groups applied to specialized purpose is like development of a higher level of life. We see that beginning with ants and termites already.

Information and coordination works via phermones and shared stomach contents between workers, with no central controller. This is like cells coordinating via hormones.

Add a new caste, a courier, specializing in sending messages directly to distant reaches rather than diffusing slowly through the population.

These can relay messages from one organ to another, directly and quickly. Say, fungus farmers deep in the mound can prepare for the load found by the foragers, because the collective mass of workers foraging give summaries to a small number of express couriers which make rounds back and forth.

Couriers are nerve tissue. Now what happens if the population of couriers in a chamber, waiting their turn at a courier run, just mulling around eating and resting, communicate the diffuse way as all ants do? It might start to develop a mass of connected nerve tissue devoted to being interconnected among its own mass of cells. See where I'm heading here?

And don't forget to read GEB!

  • $\begingroup$ GEB is a wonderful book, but too big and heavy. Have you heard of any epub version? $\endgroup$
    – nowox
    Jun 30, 2016 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ I don't recall. Go with dead-tree just this once, and make tge most of the format by writing in the margins. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 30, 2016 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ I hate to say this, but I actually don't get where you`re going $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Jul 11, 2016 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ dead tree or here. The first link is from a cultural treasure. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 11, 2016 at 21:59

In a small way this happens already.
Weaver ants have a very complicated communication system using pheromones that allows for an unusual amount of cooperation.

A lot of that is hard wired into the ant as instinct; When I smell this, I do this. If the smell is stronger over here then that's where I should go.

The trick would be a very small evolutionary change that gets rid of the hard wiring and allows for a bit more flexibility. This could allow for inspiration to do something more than "make a nest, look for food."

The other important part would be a way to have a collective memory. If each ant is just doing its part and responding to what's happening right now, it would be a like a person with anterograde amnesia, which would wreck any hopes of them developing sentience.

This could be accomplished with chemicals; maybe each ant laying down a pattern of pheromones into the walls of the nest of the signals and messages passing around the nest, or it could be a special class of ant that does it. Perhaps while taking care of the eggs and larva. By having memory and history, you can see where you're coming from and where you're going.

Eventually it might develop into what could be seen as a biological computer, with input from the scouts, short term chemical memory in the form of scent trails (RAM), long term chemical memory laid down in the walls of the nest (hard drive), and the collective processing power of several million ants.

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    $\begingroup$ There's IMHO no need to reduce the hard-wiring of single ants. Our neurons are also quite hard-wired. BTW, another way to store long-term memory could be in the structure of the ant hill itself (that is, in the structure of the tunnel system). That might be a bit more durable than chemical imprints. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Jun 24, 2016 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ Good notice about memory, they have to have it, definitely. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 5, 2016 at 14:20

Yes, but...or No, but ...its weird I just realized those mean virtually the same thing...

So there are questions that need answering. Primarily who are your actors. What use is sapience to your ant colony?

If they are, as a colony, creating sapience.

  • Who/What is the receiver of the little pieces of information from the individual ants?
  • Who/What is using the information being collected?
  • How is the collected information being used?

Additionally you need a transfer medium for your information.

I would suggest some form of electro-chemical transmission, ants already use chemical trails to mark paths and others to announce intruders...but those aren't real precise...sapience is going to require more precision.

In nature, energy efficiency is paramount. The more complicated the creature the less energy efficient it becomes. Complex organs and systems require far more upkeep and energy. They just happen to offset the energy requirement by increasing the creature's survivability.

Size is an issue here...any organ(s) is going to require energy to maintain it and keep it functioning...can an ant maintain the level of energy required to support such a communication method?

So. To wrap up you need to.

  • Define your communication method and how it will work. What kind of energy requirements does it have

  • Define collecting agent for your information

  • Define the acting agent, who/what is sapient and making decisions
  • Can the size of your creature support the energy demands of such a specialized organ?

In short: Sapience requires specialized members of the whole to transfer and process information.

So I am pretty sure you at least need one of these. (and I am not talking about NPH but that probably wouldn't hurt either)
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Well, you need a means of communication, and a way of powering it, both of which may be somewhat challenging if the members of your hive-mind are the size of ants. Have you read Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep? The distributed-mind creatures in that are close to human-sized and use ultrasonics. The ant mind in T H White's The Book of Merlyn is also worth a look; it is fantasy rather than SF, but it has some ideas about the psychology of such a mind IIRC.

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    $\begingroup$ Ants already communicate, and power themselves by eating. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Jun 23, 2016 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for bringing up The Tines race. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 24, 2016 at 2:32

Real world ant, bee and wasp colonies (and I'm guessing also termites but know little about them) are hotbeds of competition and internecine struggle. They are not the perfect 'hive mind' they are depicted to be. For instance in some species the worker sneakily lay eggs when the queen isn't looking. The queen not so sneakily eats their eggs when she discovers them. In others, multiple queens found a new colony and then compete to become the reigning monarch. Or the workers murder the queens one by one until there is only one left. Drones compete to mate with new queens. And so on.

So you need a mechanism to eliminate all this competition. The most obvious biological solution is to make them all clones of each other. If everyone is genetically identical, then no-one is favouring their genes above anyone else's.

So perhaps you could have an ant species which reproduces like aphids (greenfly). When the going is good, the mother (your founding queen) churns out identical copies of herself. It is only when times get tough, that the aphids switch to sexual reproduction and produce winged males and females to fly off to find some new place to live.

Because ants are to a certain extent controlling their own environment (building a nest to protect from weather & temperature, gathering food, cultivating fungus) they'll spend most of the time having clones. The winged ants that head off to found a new colony will not be clones - they'll have their genes mixed up as normal.

Downside: disease will go through a colony of clones like wildfire, since they all have exactly the same resistance, same 'blood group', and so on.


I personally subscribe to the slightly radical hypothesis that in fact not only is it possible, its actually very common.

I am a panpsychist and have the belief that consciousness is actually fundamental to the operation of reality. That even cells have their own consciousness, however that consciousness is nothing like human consciousness. Its "Cell" consciousness, whatever the hell that looks like. But it looks like something.

And somehow those individual cell consciousnesses become the collective consciousness that is you. Its unexplained how that happens but then consciousness is pretty much unexplained anyway so you don't lose much there. There are good reasons for believing that things operate this way, but they are far, far to complicated to explain here.

There is a widespread assumption that its incompatible with physics but it turns out it isn't. Physics is based on Quantum mechanics and General relativity and once you grok them it turns out the two ideas are perfectly compatible.

Once you accept that somewhat radical position then its a pretty easy step to extend it to societies of multi-cellular organisms. If collections of cells can become "one" without any real explanation then it follows that collections of multi-cellular organisms can become "one" without any real explanation. And I believe this sort of thing happens all the time already with humans now but those consciousnesses tend to be weak, contingent and fleeting.

Interactions do seem to be important. If the interactions are tight and strongly coupled then you get strong consciousnesses (like individual humans). If the interactions are loose and weakly coupled then you get weak consciousnesses (like humans unified by a sporting match, musical concert or other common cause)

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you can link to panpsycicwhatsit. Even if something like that is true, the op is asking for recognisable intelligence like we enjoy, so saying all information processing has conciousness doesn't help. Oh, note that their, there, and they're are all different words: you might want to edit that. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 24, 2016 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz If you change X's for Y's it may make sense, even if he misused our X's. Understanding of alien in this case is simple because it's just matter of changing terminology basis. Everything we enjoy, is described in different field of knowledge chemistry, physics, mathematics etc. And these fields of knowledge is our basis for understanding of universe. His basis can be represented in more common basis of science, so it's just a form. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 5, 2016 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg I have no idea what you mean in the above comment. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 6, 2016 at 9:23

With ant's there are at least 2 major obstacles, preventing them to be sapient.

  • Speed of information transfer and mobility.

Also maybe more fundamental, system as whole(or some aspects of it) which makes anthill an anthill and limits size.

Speed, information

For ants, we can imagine system which allows to transfer and work with information, bits of it. And that system makes some useful results. We can, because they already have such systems.

But what makes system, which others have, mammals and others, useful?

  • It's fast. Someone may be dumb but fast, and be successful.
  • It's energy efficient comparing to what it does (helps find new energy and in some cases prevents being energy for someone else). Smarter someone is - better it might be at finding food or preventing being food himself.
  • It allows to learn, tune(learn) actions fast, on the fly in some cases. Even for a snail, which needs 20-30 lessons in simple cases, which it may comprehend according to it's smartness level, it may take just a hour (not sure about time, just assume it repeats some actions once in 2 minutes, maybe a bit to fast for it, but in general 2-3 hours it think is reasonable amount of time for it, and it may be smarter then that, Helix pomatia used to be laboratory snail, because of relatively simple structure of neuron networks and bigger size of nerve cells).

Smart-fast-energy efficient - at some extend any from this triad may compensate imperfection of other two. You may be fasts, but not smart not energy efficient - as example Mustelidae in general or Polecat, Mink(just funny, mink farm) as example. Can't find atm and can not recall - saw somewho from Mustelidae smaller, just little bigger then rat, they are so crazy, so target driven, all time in movement, all brains in killing it's pray, nonstop - but also they like to play and are funny.

For wide range of combinations, it can be found a species, which will express this combination the most, air, ground, see, deep see. But brain principles(I mean neuron cells) are same. It shows how flexible that system is, it works from no brainers to relatively smart creatures.

In all these cases speed of signal (20 m/s, differs in some range for different species), efficiency(element is few cells, even if the are bigger then usually still a cell, so they consume less energy then significant size multicellular organism), compactness (it's a boost for and speed, and efficiency, and mobility) - these properties are vital for systems, which we may observe atm.

$\small \text{Ants}$

For system based on ants interaction, as separate elements of such system
Can it be fast, as information processing? With chemical and physical approach, no. Way to slow, just reacting to food stimulus in their current stage it may take them 15-30 minutes to react on food presence. And it's kinda typical time of their thinking, few bits tick.

Ants as messengers, as information carriers, they have zipp back and forth at 20m/s speeds and actually way more then that - depends on size of that ants-brain - to gain proper speed of thinking.

Dense packing of information and processing it - when it goes about mm size creatures. If we take big cell 0.1mm and small ant 1mm - there difference in volume 1000 times, roughly speaking 1000 times difference in energy consumption for 1 bit processing, storing. If their speed is 2 cm/s it means 1000 times slower signal processing, and because of size which will be 10 times bigger (linear difference instead of volume) it will be not 1000 but 10000 times slower.

So to reach some rabbit brain processing power smartness(let say 1kg), it have to be 10'000'000 bigger. It's 10000 tonnes anthill, just in ants mass. (feeding and thinking capabilities proportional to small rabbit)

Funny thing, principles behind information processing, for most(if not all, I mean, I just doubt a little about bacteria's and viruses, but looks like the do) of creatures we observe on earth, are so much flexible, that it works with ant's even in case of such efficiency difference.

It works, but in same time it prevent's them to reach rabbit philosophic ability's(rabbits are hedonists - eat and propagate life, and they are good at that).


Mobility, another thing which makes brains and similar systems as useful thing. Constantly changing environment, changes are introduced at least trough moving in different parts of that environment, full of other moving things which wish to make energy from others moving things, and do not let to make energy from them self.

In this sense even mobile ants colonies, are not mobile. Rabbit is small and available information around him, is kinda small (field of vision(compact, eyes), sound which reaches place where he is(compact, ears), odors which reaches his place(compact, nose)) - so information is reduced, at point where it is collected in amounts it reach these points of information collection, and because of such reduction he have to think more to recreate important for him information which is behind these bit that reached him, but because of that fact it is reduced, he is capable to work with it, it fits in his small brains, would it be more, he would have difficult times just to filter that information, he could do that, but price will be loosing higher abstraction layers.

Ant-rabbit is way bigger then usual rabbit, and surrounded with tiny bits of information like white noise. Noise because it's not important, nor critical for him, and he is't capable to process it all, too much information. And because of size it easy may let him ignore it - eat what can be eaten, eat what moves and so on, on "reflex" level - no need to think.

Ant-rabbit as mobile and stationary system have major flaw in each state

As mobile system, because of it's size and weak structure (as whole structure strength, not as elements(ants) strengths, but binding energy between elements) can't be 3d structure, it have to be flat and this will reduce speed of his thinking drastically, also it will reduce theoretically possible complexity for it(it will be dumb as rock if short). Although it may exist in that form for migration as example and so on. It still can feed himself, react, protect - reflexes will still work, it do not need brains for that.

After he can dig-build-find anthill to reassembly 3d complex structure, and get his consciousness back. And there another problem how to feed himself in that situation. He is big. It needs lot of food, lot of water. Human need let's say 100kJ/kg per day (just for rough estimation, human needs 8-10MJ/day). Ants-rabbit may need something around 1/100 of it's mass food a day, that is 100 tonne per day. Grass grow 40 tonnes per $km^2$ per season, let say 100 days for simplicity, means $0.4 tonne/km^2$ so it means ants-rabbit needs $250km^2$ area just to feed himself daily, and 1.5-2-3-4 times more for purveyance for time when grass do not grow, in case to keep that place productive. Way to much for his elements, big for single organism (but not totally impossible Trembling Giant he is 43 hectares (106 acres))

Also Army ant, they do that not for fun. Also ants do not eat vegetables only, and there are lot of reasons, if they would then they easily would exterminate grass in their reach, but living pray is attracted but that grass (for different reasons) and that extends ants reach and energy collecting capabilities and prevents them from exterminating their food sources. Ant's surrounding is a big bait.

If ant-rabbit will keep photosynthesis plants to produce energy for him, still insane areas needed for such weak internal organisation.

Potencial barrier to get consciousness is so big, this may get it with higher probability and speed Slime mould solves maze puzzle

  • Slime, may be used as media for ants to process information, and as symbiotic part of system may actually solve some problems in getting that consciousness-brains. Maybe even in natural way, after ant-rabbits will eat everything on planet except symbiotic parts. But will it satisfy you as ants consciousness.

Size limits

As above there are some big problems to solve, and to get that possibility to solve them, ant-rabbit's have to eat and destroy everything except them selfs. Ant-rabbit have great advantages and great weaknesses, too polar in his strength-weakness and not capable to solve these tasks in it's initial form surrounded by other creatures.

On top of that, getting brains and consciousness is't easy task by itself, I mean to level, where you may solve problems which you do not have to solve, when it may solve problems which it created for itself. Any living creature, may and solve (as spices, and at some extend as individuals) problems which it have to solve. All these who did't, or failed at some point - are no longer living.

All that processes takes time, this is race, and cell have leg-up in that race. But even if we place on start line ants and cell - cell will win. Ants playing cell, have not chances to win race. And first ant-bear slime will rip Ants-rabbit apart, even for Ants-human, Ants-million-humans, Ants-1000millions-humans-pre-1963techlevel-science-approach it will be a problem.

Too fragile on each point in time, until it gets real smart and advanced tech.

Probably, ants-rabbit have to be created, to skip all that fragile development. Or environment have to be created to prevent breaking factors, but it will unpredictable limit abilities of such system to develop itself.

Being friable structure, it's very tricky to affect environment. I mean, elephant may move trees as whole, can ants do that, piece by piece yes, as whole very tricky, they may, but it will be already more complex task for them then for humans. (just imperfect example to show, idea)


Possible, but natural way highly unlikely.

Is there sense-point-value-meaning-significance-spirit in to creation of such systems? $Yes.$

We are pretty good at creating problems for us, and at solving them. But also we are limited in types, approaches, classes of such problems. And to be able breach boundaries of our collective consciousness, we have to solve new types of problems, and for that is't reasonable to create another creature with another types of problems, which will be not typical for us. It may create both types of problem have-to-solve and do-not-have-but-may to solve.

Besides, it's interesting task by itself.

If we survive, then in not so much distant future there(in this star system) will be no problems we can't solve (except our typical problems), and probably few more fundamental problems. And to get ability to solve more fundamental problems, and be better at solving our problems, it might be good time to get new toy, which will teach us by it's problems by it's existence, which will transform our ways of thinking farther. Next race we have to begin and to race.

Actually space may be good place to create such ants-brains. Less restriction from gravity, less energy to redistribute food-energy, more energy in general - all energy size restriction will be less strict.


As far as I can tell, absolutely. But the fact that an infinite amount of sapient species theoretically exist helps this a lot.

Fire ants are known to create rafts during floods, so perhaps the bonding behavior of these ant-hills results from a long lasting flood.


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