Could Wasps and Ants reach the stone age?

In my world, a group of scientists prepare for the "inevitable" extinction of man by manufacturing* true, efficient, social(1) hive minds from Order Hymenoptera, specifically from the wasp waist families Formicidae and Vespidae. They intend for these "Vespoids" to one day reach a similar level of advancement in less time than humanity so that, should the Vespoids find mortal flaws in themselves, they may also create a successor species.

This is all well and good, but there is one major flaw in choosing an insect hive mind - any path to advancement will be limited, since they can't lift 10 ounce stones and apply the repeated, focused force necessary to fashion blades and hammers(2); nor can they twist sticks with the speed and force to make embers, and even if they could, would they be able to utilize fire without constantly killing their units?

So my Question is -

Could these "Vespoids" advance up to the stone age(3) given their physical limitations?

Notes

(*) Assume any adaptation for intelligence is present, as these "Vespoids" can be genetically engineered to any lengths necessary

(1) The individual hives work together in kin based groups analogous to tribes

(2) Specifically stone are not necessary for this Question

(3) By stone age , I mean some pre-metallic technological phase that may exist as an intermediate between lack of technology and use of metal

• The answer really comes down to "if wasps and ants don't need stone tools, why would they want to make them?" and "is the use of stone tools your definition of stone age?" – A. C. A. C. Jul 10 '17 at 18:44
• The animals will develop from their own needs. There is no reason to believe there is a "ladder of technological development" or for technology to develop linearly. There are many path to the same technology. – A. C. A. C. Jul 10 '17 at 18:59
• @TheoclesofSaturn Is your real question is "Can intelligent wasps or ants fashion and use moderately complex tools and fire." Focusing on stones rules out a lot of useful answers. – BobTheAverage Jul 10 '17 at 19:07
• They already have. Ants have been farming and building earthen homes for millions of years and wasps have been creating their homes for millions of years as well – ohwilleke Jul 11 '17 at 0:44
• SFF short story on this theme by Arthur C Clarke: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Next_Tenants (although termites, in this case, and only one scientist). – arboviral Jul 11 '17 at 13:10

I still don't think that vespoids will follow human evolution like you want it to, but since no one is trying to give you a pathway I'll try.

The first thing to understand is your scientists have to face is that advanced tool building ants doesn't necessarily mean that these ants are superior on that grounds alone to displace all other ants. Just because Homo Sapiens displaced Neaderthals, doesn't mean the scientists' super tool building ants are going to do the same in the ant world. So I think it is important that they have two goals:

1. Genetically engineer ants to be biologically superior in some way that will favor them evolutionarily over normal ants apart from their ability to use tools. Whatever this advantage isn't super critical or interesting to me, but it will give the ants a bigger bump than tool use alone.

2. Train/teach tool use in ants until they regularly show spontaneous tool usage or even better consistent tool adaptation. This is the point I'm going to focus on in my answer because it feels like the meat of your question.

Ants are builders by nature

It seems to me the best way to encourage more and more advanced tool usage in ants is to get them to build more complicated solutions to the problems they face. Of course all of this is dependent on ants being trainable, but it is your world you can make your ants trainable if you so desire.

One problem subterranean animals face is water. Currently ants have a variety of methods to dealing with water/rain. What you might do is to setup an environment where those strategies don't work, and guide the ants to new strategies that will work. One strategy that might work is trying to introduce the concept of an Archimedes screw. Since a screw is one of the classical simple machines this seems as good of a place to start as any.

Introduce the concept of mechanical work providing a reward by placing an Archimedes screw that is fixed to the cylinder and actuated by walking on it1 through the ant nest. The screw should be made up of some natural material with the form of the screw already in place, but filled with food. This way the ants will tunnel into the screw thereby setting up the foundation of building the screw. Overtime these should be filling with progressively greater filler to food ratios until ants are boring the screw on their own. Bonus points if your scientists can genetically engineer something like bamboo that has an encased Archimedes screw structure instead of bamboo's normal segments.

Once the cylinder/screw is hollowed out it should be in a position where when the ants walk on the cylinder accidentally they will get some reward like food and have it remove water from the nest. The goal is for the food to be a primary motivator with the water removal as a secondary benefit. Of course the goal is to transition them to using the screw for removing water alone, but we're taking baby steps.

As the ants appear to realize that walking on this strange device gives them food move it gradually to the outskirts of the nest and a natural sump so they have to seek it out in order to walk on it as well as making it more effective at removing water. Now that they associate strongly walking on this to giving them food, start to decrease the effectiveness until it only gives food when it is raining/extra wet.

Now that we have them associating walking on the screw with removing water and building screws we need to get the ants to start placing the screws into their nest. The way to do this is by ever so slightly pulling out the screw, and waiting for the ants to realize they need to reseat the screw. Progressively do this until the screw is removed and the ants will take a screw laying next to the nest in order to tunnel it into a sump in their nest.

Finally all that is left is getting them to harvest the natural materials to make the screw. After that is accomplished you can release them in a place like the salt marshes I linked to where this screw gives them an advantage. If they start spreading and displacing other ants, while maintaining/extending their tool building you've done your job well.

1: Per the Archimedes screw Wikipedia page, "depictions of Greek and Roman water screws show them being powered by a human treading on the outer casing to turn the entire apparatus as one piece."

• Thank You for giving me an actual answer to my question instead of say "I don't like the idea of you question" this is exactly what I was looking for , Thank You – user15036 Jul 15 '17 at 4:41

Stone Age Progression

This is all well and good , but their is one major flaw in choosing an insect hive mind - they can't lift 10 ounce stones apply the repeated , focused force necessary to fashion them into blades and hammers ; nor can they twist sticks with the speed and force to make embers , and even if they could , would they be able to utilize fire without constantly killing their units?

I think this is a flaw in your thinking. I don't know why you picked 10 ounces as a necessity for ant-sized stone age tools. You talk about blades and hammers and fire, but that's getting waaaay ahead of yourself.

Instead, paleontologists characterize stone tools in "modes". This goes from "Mode 1" simple hammerstones with a sharp edge, as at Oldowan 2-3 million years ago, all the way to "Mode 5" where small, sharp pieces of stone are embedded in wood handles for leverage starting roughly 15,000 years ago to the present. In contrast, primates don't control fire until about 500,000 years ago.

Source

Flint Knapping

The basic way to make a stone age tool is flint knapping. This takes advantage of the natural fissures in certain stones like flint and obsidian to produce naturally sharp edges. Flint knapping can be a careful skill, but you can also bang flint against another rock and eventually you'll get a sharp edge; it doesn't require much thought. Primates were doing it incessantly 3 million years ago. The natural fissures in flint and obsidian might not work at ant scale, but there's probably some other stone that does.

This can then be used as an axe, or a blade. It allows chopping, cutting, shaving, and stripping of wood, hides, and even stone at speeds and precision beyond what a soft human hand or blunt rock can do. You can use it to chop down a tree, shave off the bark, and sharpen the edge to make a spear.

Watch Primitive Technology make and use a stone axe from scratch. He's using quite advanced techniques, but you see his basic knapping at the beginning to produce a sharp edge from a blunt river stone.

How Much Flint Could An Ant Flint Knap If An Ant Could Knap Flint?

There's three things at issue. 1) Can they physically make stone tools? 2) Do they have a behavior they can adapt for flint knapping? 3) Do stone tools give them an evolutionary advantage?

Because they're so small, their volume-to-mass-ratio is so small, ants and other insects are extremely strong in relation to their body weight. They can perform relative feats of strength far greater than much larger primates can. Strength is not an issue.

Ants also have strong jaws for grasping, so the ability to grab and hold the stone is also not an issue. It seems number 1 is a yes, they can physically do it assuming there's suitable stone available.

The second one is difficult to answer. Evolution is not a march toward intelligence, it's adapting to the environment. Ants are doing VERY well for themselves, evolutionarily speaking. They've been around for 100 million years, a very good run, and there's 20,000 species filling nearly every ecological niche on Earth. If you think of the hive as a single organism, its workers are its hands and its tools. Its not clear what advantage they gain by spending precious energy on tool production.

On the flip side, it's not clear that tool-making and intelligence are a good idea, evolutionarily speaking. Humans are on the verge of making themselves extinct giving tool makers a paltry 3 million years.

For example, you might say sharp stone tools would give an ant colony an advantage in warfare. It might. But its jaws already behave as weapons. Its already protected by tough armor and sheer numbers. Is higher intensity warfare with its cousins an advantage? That's what's going to get humanity extinct. Is being better at making war with yourself an evolutionary advantage, or a dead end?

Humanity's advanced tools are literally altering our environment faster than we can adapt, even with more technology. Is tool making an evolutionary advantage, or a dead end?

That said, natural selection is very short sighted and will try anything if it gives a short-term advantage. Humanity's experiment in tool making gave them a massive advantage for a few million years. Short-term on evolution's scale, but it still happened. So might a species of ant.

Finally, do they have an existing behavior which could be adapted to flint knapping? Primates, having hands out on long arms can use them as simple levers to strike things like predators, and competing primates. That behavior is adaptable to idly banging rocks together. In contrast, an ant's "hands" are its jaws and use grasping and crushing, not swinging and levering. But I'm not an evolutionary entomological psychologist.

The scientists could give evolution a nudge using artificial selection. A combination of an environment where tools are advantageous, plus selectively breeding ants with a propensity towards tool smithing. One possibility is to set up an artificial "arms race" against another species where both must advance their tool making to compete with the other. It might lead to long term ecological disaster and the extinction of both species (and many others), but in the short term it will produce the desired effect.

Fire

Fire use has similar questions: Is it advantageous to ants? Do they have a propensity for fire? Most animals, quite rightfully, run from fire. Human ancestors somehow became fascinated by it. That fascination gave the squishy primates security and warmth and allowed them to expand their territory to all corners of the globe.

Ants seem to be doing that just fine without fire or tools.

• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jul 16 '17 at 4:11
• Back to square one: tool use leads to the "inevitable" extinction xD – Nick Dzink Dec 10 '17 at 19:40

Never underestimate the power of a hive mind. Their intellect could easily come up with solutions that we never did.

As for the issue of an ant not being able to lift 10 ounces, I'd like to point out that that's actually an arbitrary line in the sand. Consider that you can't lift 10,000 pounds, and yet:

The trick would be that the wasps would have to start with tools they could manage, and work their way up. It's just like we did.

As for fire, fire is bad news for pretty much anyone caught in it. The wasps will have the same rule about fire as we do: don't get burned. Wasps are mobile, they'll figure it out. Creating it could be tricky at first, because of the size issues you mention. However, once you get some basic wood and cord construction going on, they could probably mechanize the process.

However, I'd expect they'd use their strengths, rather than trying to make fire in exactly the same way humans did. One of the known ways to make fire is to wait for it to be created naturally and the harness it. A carefully tied bundle of twigs can hold a smoldering ember for a day or more, which would be perfect for these wasps trying to manage their fire. In addition, it would be easy for them to spare one or two wasps to tending the fire, while us humans don't have that luxury.

Of course, their real issue is their competition. Spiders have already entered the stone age. Your wasps are far behind.

• The original source for that image (credit your sources!!) explains that this suspended stone was likely to be an accident. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 11 '17 at 11:56
• @LightnessRacesinOrbit True, I probably did get myself in trouble not quoting. Then again, if I made it sound like an accident, it's no longer intelligent tool-building spiders -- the stuff of nightmares. ;-) – Cort Ammon Jul 11 '17 at 14:20
• Thank you for attempting to answer my question instead of arguing against the premise , your answer is Appreciated – user15036 Jul 15 '17 at 4:46

You talk a lot about fire and stone tools but your question really is (emphasis mine):

They intend for these "Vespoids" to one day reach a similar level of advancement in less time than humanity so that, should the Vespoids find mortal flaws in themselves, they may also create a successor species.

In my opinion your mistake that Schwern alluded to in his answer is you're trying to shoehorn ant evolution/solutions into the same path as human evolution/solutions. Ants aren't humans so they'll develop other ways to solve the same problems just like they've done for millions of years. Ants won't create fire for warmth and preparing food because they live in comfortably cool dirt houses. Ants won't make stone tools to crack nuts because they have strong jaws and farm a good bulk of the food they need. To solve this problem figure out what are hallmarks of our current "level of advancement" and then create a pathway to an ant/vespoid version.

For example wasps might begin to use roaches like we use cattle (instead of baby-food/cribs) without going through the long process of roach domestication by re-purposing their existing behavior/venom. This will be beneficial because it is more believable, plus if you want different results you need to use different methods. Maybe stringing copper wires around the globe is what lead to humans doom, and would inevitably lead to vespoid doom as well.

So don't try to mimic human developmental stages. Embrace vespoid developmental stages and vespoid strategies to create a successor species. A wasp could use mind control to make roaches to be easy prey for a successor species, and uses roaches to spoil food for a successor species' predator/false starts. Whenever you start falling into the trap of following the human blueprint remember that humans didn't domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated humans. Maybe we are their successor species...

• Remember humans didn't domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated humans I think you're confusing "wheat" with "cats". – Grimm The Opiner Jul 11 '17 at 9:04
• @GrimmTheOpiner :) you might be right. – Erik Jul 11 '17 at 12:07
• ants have already domesticated other species – Andrey Jul 11 '17 at 17:07
• @Andrey I was just using the wasp/roach example as a distinct but relatable pathway. In all reality though while there would be some overlap between human tech hallmarks and vespoid tech hallmarks I would expect significant divergence. Vespoid have different problems/needs that will drive their tech, and the tech to overcome the short comings of that tech will inevitably cause the tech trees to branch out in wildly different ways than human tech trees. – Erik Jul 11 '17 at 17:15
• Thank You for challenging the premise of the Question in a useful way that provides alternatives and work arounds instead of just saying that you don't like the premise , if I could choose more than one answer , I would. Thank You – user15036 Jul 15 '17 at 4:50

As I answered here regarding ants, they would mass together and also use sticks and bones from other animals for structure:

how can eucaryotic cells use tools? Yeast can't swing a hammer, but what about multicellular organisms makes that possible?

In this scenareo, tool use (in a sense) is a prerequisite for manipulating larger items. This should provide “stone age” technology readily, if they have the intelligence for it.

In a way ants and wasps have already reached the stone age. They are highly refined in the raw materials they use. Eg. the paper-wasp builds these bizarre sci-fi looking shelters high up using bark from only specific trees. One issue with hive minds is they may not compete enough, humanity grew through the competition and communication of ideas. The largest cultural transference in humanity has probably occurred through war. I know fire ants actually defend their own regardless of hive. It would make sense the insects actually combine a lot of useful behaviours from different wasp/ant species and somehow pass knowledge on and store it.

• An astute answer! – Fattie Jul 11 '17 at 22:10

A hive mind particularly one that can rapidly produce will not develop advanced tools. I'm basing this on 100 million years of evolution not leading to tools compared to our 3 million years. Clearly they can build amazing structures but not advance tools (in my opinion we would have seen it happen if it were the case as there many species that have had this cognitive behavior for a very long time).

When I say hive mind I don't mean the scifi definition where you have some super intelligent master mind that is the queen bee. I mean the hive behavior/intelligence we currently observe in earth species where the queen basically just reproduces.

A hive mind and our "tool like" mind and many other species (apparent) cognitive behavior comes from reproductive behavior. I'll fetch some references later but many scientist think the defining thing that made humans different is our reproductive behavior. Of course there are other theories like our thumbs and our endurance (tracking down pray) that caused increased frontal cortex development but there is strong argument towards the sex argument.

Anyway I think its unlikely because ants have probably reached a local minimum (Hill climbing which is somewhat analogous to evolution) in development or changing towards tool behavior because of how successful they currently are (I want to avoid the word evolution here as there are false associations with evolution as being "advancing").

And I have theory that probably all hive minds probably eventually reach a similar local minimum once they are highly successful. After all you can just throw bodies at many problems.

Humans on the other hand are continuously inter competitive. There was a comment that we were not effective as species because we kill each other... if anything that has lead to greater and faster tool development. Whether that is good or not or better evolution is besides really the point: hive minds I don't think need or want to develop advance tools.

I think the best you are going to get is something like star ship troopers where there is a hivemind and the different children are the different tools. Namely the hive mother just has a different bug for different jobs. It is unlikely that insects will use tools when the insects are the tools as in ants or any hivemind situation. Also bear in mind that no matter how smart you make these wasps, if the force of evolution is against them needing to be smart (because they don't need it to reproduce effectively) then bye-bye intelligence., and probably very fast.

What might be possible is having a super smart queen with different castes of children that eventually become more specialized to increasingly complex jobs. That is one path to civilization and intelligent life for your bugs, but no it won't be like humans.

Of course you still have the option of hand wavium.