The idea of a collective consciousness is pretty simple: instead of cells you have small animals (such as ants or termites) that make up a larger creature. This is different from a hive in that the individuals of the mind are not sapient, only the collective is. This has made me ask a question, how do ant-cells of one 'anthill' separate themselves from ants of another?

For example, if the ants rely on pheromone trails, then one ants covering another would kill them(making hugs lethal), but if the ants rely on a sense of territory, then just touching one would hurt them. Due to me wanting this species to be social and sapient, I cannot have either of them.

So, how are cells of a collective consciousness able to know which cells are parts of their collective and which are not? How can the cells tell the difference and yet not attack members of other collectives?

There have been questions on the realism so please leave out answers declaring the concept unrealistic there.

  • $\begingroup$ The answer to that question is likely to be embedded in the way they communicate. e.g. If you go with the old standby, telepathy, then you just have every collective talk on their own "frequency" with other members, use sound or a common "frequency" to talk to others. $\endgroup$ – Seeds Jun 24 '16 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Seeds remember the concept is that each cell is nothing more than an microscopic organism(in this case ant) but together, as a collective, they make up an animal (or 'Anthill') $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jun 24 '16 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ Ants are not a collective consciousness though, they are just a colony. Hive is just a word for a colony of bees. (or the thing they live in) These things act in concert (over short distances) but they are not collectively conscious, any more than office workers are. $\endgroup$ – Seeds Jun 24 '16 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Seeds this is a concept. It doesn't exist in this world. Are you going to complain about question asking about merfolk because merfolk aren't real? $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jun 24 '16 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ You tagged reality check, you question hasn't any details. My comment was an attempt to glean more information. Scent makes for decent identification, but it isn't useful for the type of communication required for a collective consciousness. Thus my comment, the mechanism for the communication is likely part of how they identify one another. $\endgroup$ – Seeds Jun 24 '16 at 19:31

I guess Schwern beat me to the punch, but I think I still have some unique points to offer.

According to the Internet (here is a Washington Post article about it, it had the least popups), ants have a very sophisticated sense of smell, and by running their antennae over objects they can detect minute chemical differences. Something that humans often forget is that our sense of smell isn't all that good, and we tend to bathe much more often than other animals. So I'd say that not only should your 'cells' be able to reliably tell friend from foe in the vast majority of cross-colony interactions, but they should also be able to tell the difference between an enemy and someone who has merely touched an enemy.

Keep in mind, too, that scent is one of the hardest senses to fake. You can paint your cells a different color, you can instruct them to make different sounds or motions, but for most animals it's difficult to mask their personal odor, and nearly impossible to mimic the odor of another individual. To mimic the smell of another colony you'd either need to harvest it from members of that colony, or you'd need a solid understanding and control of chemistry, and the ability to keep your individuals from excreting their own scents. That's going to be tough to pull off, especially for an extended period of time.

As for friendly interactions, you could probably have specialized cells that can smell the friendly cells and then transmit that scent to the rest of the colony with instructions to treat them as a friend. If you think it'll take too much intelligence for cells to remember so many smells, perhaps you could have specialized immune system cells that handle detecting and attacking enemies. That way, no one else has to worry about it, and the immune cells don't have to worry about anything other than smelling and fighting.


To answer the question in the title, they don't.

While ants in particular may be able to determine what anthill they belong to using pheromones, nothing says that other types of collectives would need to stay separate. You could imagine that a business is a sort of collective consciousness. The organizational structure defines how the business divides into departments, and how departments divides into teams. The CEO sets the direction and goals of the overall organization, whereas each team composing the business implements some functionality which moves the business towards the goal. You may ask the business a question: "Does SRS_BUSINES_LTD use fossil fuels in its production process?" And the question will (usually) propagate through the company to the relevant parties who know the answer, whereupon the company will return the result back to you. How exactly this happens may vary from company to company. If it's a small company, you might ask the CEO, who will either tell you the answer right away, or ask his subordinates to find out, who will propagate the answer back up the hierarchy. A larger company may have a department specifically for addressing feedback. That department might be a call center, a group of people, etc. Some companies might ignore your question outright (Comcast?). But either way, if you look at the organization as a whole, you can treat it as a large information processing mechanism that can answer questions by delegating to it's constituent parts.

The thing is, nothing restricts a person from belonging to only one business. A person can work for one company in the daytime, and moonlight at night. Even throughout the course of the day, a person may have several functions. During the morning meeting, they may coordinate discussion, but during the rest of they day, they may answer phone calls, do research, marketing, programming, or whatever their role entails. They may belong to different groups within the company (Company Volleyball Team etc), each with its own process for answering questions. These groups don't even have to be "official", they can be ad-hoc groups that are just people who happened to be around together at a time. i.e. you walk up to the coffee machine and say, "Hey, does anyone know who took the stapler?" That group of people at the coffee machine might look at each other, and self organize to answer your question. "Well, I know Jim had it before lunch". "Oh hey, Jim gave it to Sofie! You should ask her." In this way, the ad-hoc collective group that just formed answered the question better than the individuals would have been able to.

People can even be part of different collective consciousnesses at the same time. Consider that most people are simultaneously part of a business, and a country. When a hiring manager decides to open a role, they may simultaneously perform the service for the business by expanding the company, and a service for the country by attracting foreign knowledge workers.

But what it comes down to is that the rules for individual collectives are different. Collectives can restrict entry to people who belong to other collectives. Or they can merge with other collectives. And, in certain circumstances, groups that belonged to one collective pass a referendum by majority vote to secede from a larger collective which causes their prime minister to resign.

  • $\begingroup$ very good point $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jun 25 '16 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of "moonlighting.. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 30 '16 at 7:47

If we go by ants, related ants literally smell right. According to The Christian Science Monitor...

"I think what is unique to the ants is that they are able to discriminate these very low-volatility chemicals — these hydrocarbons, which humans cannot perceive," Ray told Live Science.

"Very low-volatility" means it's a substance that doesn't evaporate much. Which is another way of saying it's really hard to smell. This avoids it getting all over everything. This is why ants rub their antennae against each other, that's where they smell from.

What must be remembered is "smell" is really a chemical detection mechanism. You, and an ant, perceive the shape and frequency of individual molecules of a substance. We perceive it as taste and smell. Ants perceive it as... who knows, but we know they can do it a lot better than we can.

Point is, they can pick up very subtle variations in the "smell" of another ant. If they're related, they'll produce the same smell. If they're from another colony that's distant enough to have differentiated a bit, they'll smell a bit off. Their odor will have changed ever so slightly and the ants can detect this.

This is a way to recognize related ants, recognize intruders, and it's also a defense against incest. A Queen doesn't want to mate with closely related Drones.

Kurzgesagt has a nice, very broad video What Are You? about how your own body recognizes its own cells.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer, but whats to stop the ant-cells from attacking others? In a collective consciousness creature, the skin and immune system are the exact same thing. $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jun 24 '16 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b Because they're related and they all smell right. Just like in your body, your cells all have (basically) same DNA. It's how that DNA is expressed through hormones and other environmental factors that differentiates them. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Jun 24 '16 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ Have to add, good smell is learned, to produce and to accept. It changes over time in whole colony. If take part o colony, separate and return some time back, it will smell different. Also it's a away to join to colony members of other colony, by separating them physically but let air flow in both directions. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jun 25 '16 at 3:02

pheromone, Each hive/collective has it give off there on unique pheromone which it gives off when two "ant" from to different hives meet they will use pheromone to tell not only that they are from different hives/collectives but which collective/hive they are from. Just because they give off different pheromone doesn't mean that there have to be in conflict with each other. Unless the two collectives are already in conflict with each other.


Keep in mind that a queen ant can live longer than a dog, that combined with the delicate intricacy of the sense of smell, means that every collective consciousness will have a unique differing smell because every queen does.


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