Stigmergy is an interesting phenomenon, and also something very informative to the
understanding of modern human society. In short, it is the appearance of intelligence or coordination based purely on instinctive or automated reaction to an external stimuli; there is not actually a conscious or cognitive decision involved on the part of the reacting organism, or so it is assumed. Ants are one of the best models of the behaviour — they are capable of achieving very impressive feats that look, to the human estimation, like they would require some intelligent decision and coordination to accomplish, be it building bridges, ladders, rafts out of their own bodies, creating complex tunnel systems within a variety of substrates, or practicing kinds of agriculture.
In actuality, though, the ant very likely has little to no cognition, and certainly not a complex internal state. These coordinative feats are accomplished by a simple set of a few instinctive behavioural codes ingrained in each individual, honed in the genome over innumerable generations of selection as a reaction to an environment that reinforced these automatic responses. If you smell a certain pheromone, follow it. If you encounter/smell a dead ant, pick it up and carry it x distance, or towards fresh air, then drop it. If you smell this chemical cue, climb on top of the nearest ant and stay there until it dissipates. If you smell a different pheromone, immediately head to this location and sting any foreign thing in the vicinity. If you encounter a sandgrain in y location, pick it up, take it to the surface. Rinse and repeat. Every ant, in other words, is reacting individually and instinctively to some environmental prompt, with no actual intelligent coordination or consideration involved with other ants other than the cues (such as pheromones) that the others may automatically be putting down in obeisance to a stimulus.
These automatic, individual reactions, due to their fine tuning over an evolutionary
scale, just so happen to lend themselves towards sustaining colony life when multiplied over the necessary thousands, or millions, of individuals making up an ant society. Thence, the hundreds of individuals mindlessly following a trail pheromone to pick up a little bit of food results in very efficient foraging parties. The hundreds of individuals who automatically pick up a dead ant and move it outside just so happen to keep the nest interiors very hygienic, insuring colony health and survival. The ant that climbs on top of another one and stays there until a certain smell abates just so happens to be one of the thousands that are going to do the exact same thing, climbing on top of each other, and building a tower or wall thereby to reach new terrain. The ant that rushes mindlessly to attack something many times its size is doing so along with hundreds of others reacting the same way, which just so happens to be an effective deterrent towards those that accidentally bumble into a stinging or biting ant species’ nest. If you have thousands of individuals picking up a tiny pebble and moving it elsewhere, the net effect is that a tunnel or chamber eventually opens up, with none of said individuals actually having in mind that is what they were doing or building. And that is stigmergy in a nutshell — no one individual having or being able to hold a “big picture” or planned outcome in mind because there is no individual, discerning intellect, no ability to comprehend or visualise that big picture, everything being, as it is, a set of simple, autonomic cues and responses to the immediate world that just so happen to, in an aggregate, result in things that seem very complex and, as such, imply “intelligence” to human prejudice.
That is what one is led to believe, anyways, given there are many demonstrations of there being a lack of any complex cognition on the part of the individual when one throws a proverbial wrench into this immaculately stream-lined world. The “ant mill” is one of the most evident, in which, with some species, if the trail pheromone is somehow lost or obstructed, a line of foragers will default to the automatic prompt of merely following the ant directly in front of them. Rather than being able to discern and calculate with a number of other environmental cues, as one would expect of an intelligent being — such as otherwise seeing or smelling that they had just come this way and reorient themselves — they will simple keep following the ant directly in front of them, since that is what their autonomic instructions tell them to do. The result is all of them going in circles until they eventually drop dead in exhaustion. One can variously confuse their other behaviours, having them elicit reactions to various cues when they are not at all appropriate, it being outside of the colony context — but they do it anyways, because it is instinctive, no sort of cognitive judgement needed. That would be unnecessary in this context, after all — the life of an individual ant is so dispensable, next to the whole colony, and intelligence so costly to maintain, that there would be little reason for it to be selected for, particularly when automated behaviour works superbly well for maintaining the colony life.
One could readily make the case that this stigmergic loss of intelligent, cognitive capabilities is a necessity in the evolutionary development of eusociality — that is, the technical term for “true sociality,” the kind of animal societies that exhibit division of labour and reproductive castes. Such societies are sometimes dubbed “superorganisms,” insofar as the individuals in the society are analogous to the cells of a complex organism. The vast majority of those cells are “somatic,” i.e. dedicated to and acting as the body, the soma (from the Greek for the same word) — and, at its most materialistic conception, those somatic appendages, the body itself, can be said to mainly exist in service to the few “germ” cells, i.e. the reproductive cells that carry the organism’s genetic legacy into the future. Fitting to its analogy to a multicellular organism, such animal societies are usually composed of thousands, or even millions, of individuals, most of whom are “somatic” — they typically cannot reproduce themselves, either because of congenital sterility or chemical suppression, for their sole job is to protect and groom the few reproductive, germinal members, and otherwise feeding these members and the rest of the soma that likewise exists to service these social elites.
Termites, honey bees, naked mole rats, and ants are the biggest names in terms of demonstrating such a social organisation. While some such eusocial societies allow greater individual intelligence to its members/cells than others, one is hard pressed to cite a eusocial cell (a “worker” as they are often referred to) as intellectually-rivalling their more-primitively social or asocial relatives. The less one depends on others, the more functions, physical and cognitive, one must acquire, retain, and perform for oneself, with various degrees of intellectual states resulting from this interplay in the animal kingdom, giving rise to variations as diverse as a highly-intelligent but emotionally-stunted/unaffectionate reptile and the very altruistic, dependent, but completely mindless ant. We can again turn to the animal world in this respect to inform us of human social organisation and its present evolutionary trajectory. For human evolution goes on, whatever certain semi-biologically-illiterate futurists like to claim about its “end,” with man’s (supposed) “triumph over nature.” The self-selecting adaptation of “culture” possessed by man merely plays a larger role in shaping that trajectory — and it is, in my opinion, bit by bit, inching the human destiny towards the stigmergic, the truly-social-but-stupid-for-it state of the humble ant.
I would hardly be the first to make the observation/comparison of human civilisation being the simian incarnate of eusociality — it after all fits the characteristics, of there being a division of labour and reproductive castes. Another essay on this site, “Alates and Elites,” spoke more in-depth about the likeness of human civilisation with eusocial insect colonies, and so I do not intend to repeat much of it here. I do wish to expound a bit more on one of the most prominent features of eusociality in the animal kingdom that seems to also be emerging in man’s attempt at “true sociality,” and that is the contraction of individual intellect by consequence of the growing reliance on stigmergy.
One could quite readily fling out contextualless (and often tautological) statistics about this or that demographic being “more educated,” or having a “higher intelligent quotient,” than at any other time in history. “Education,” especially as it qualifies today, however, does not correlate well with or foster intelligence, except by dint of those who go to elite schools and make the elite grades often being from a higher or the highest social caste, of which, like insect elites, they are expected or encouraged to be the ones with anything approaching actual intelligence and a concomitant self-interest. For everyone else’s mental store, the bulk of abstract, encyclopaedic knowledge has certainly increased. But it comes at the expense of all other intellectual organs and stores, including as such: contextual knowledge, or how things relate to each other and under given, diverse circumstances; critical thinking (related, again, to contextual knowledge and its assessment under a wide array of scenarios); practical skills and physical aptitude, due to the diminishment of skills and physical labour an individual would have previously been expected to perform or contribute to for eons in the past, up unto the extreme division of labour ushered in with modern industrial societies; and emotional intelligence, the retraction of which is due in a large part to the breaking-down of traditional, filial loyalties and structures over time, and its supplantation with impersonal interactions, such as with bureaucracy or via social media. Patrick Pearse in his critical essay on the modern model of education, “The Murder Machine,” once distinguished this as the difference between the education of the slave — learning meaningless, uncritical, incomplete drivel to make members of lower social classes markedly less-intelligent, and that much easier to exploit — and the education of the masters, who are allowed to be a much more complete — intelligent — human being in order to better maintain their rank and reproductive advantage over others. And hence the “tautology” of the various “proofs” of increased intellect — it is rather convenient to encourage or enforce a given intellectual state (or, more properly, its absence) amongst the bulk of the population, declaring that “intelligence,” and at the same time designing the tests that furnish the proof of this declarative, supposed “intelligence” and its waxing. Education is the hottest bed of politics, intrigue, and the exercise of power.
Being able to solve any calculus problem thrown your way in the blink of an eye, but being unable to tie your own shoes, emotionally relate to others at the most rudimentary of levels, or carry a conversation about anything outside of maths does not make you a genius. It makes you, at best, an idiot savant, or else just an idiot with a peculiar quirk that the standard idiot lacks. But that is often the cut of a “genius” in the popular imagination of industrial society — an impressively well-oiled, high-efficiency cog in an assembly line, a master of one, limited aspect of human ability, who has no use/fit whatsoever when removed from his axle in the socio-economic machine. That is the “best of the best” that the ant-hill society can come up with, to show its ostensible “improvement” for the human intellect — and when we look further afield, at the “worst” and the rampant, inculcated incompetence, that famous, eusocial infantilism/neoteny, it is not at all absurd to assert that human intellect has never been lower (including, I would say, among elites, because it does not take too much brainpower to be a King of Fools).
Man’s internal state, his “spirit,” has never been the poorer — and we have our answer as to how, extraordinarily, if the most of mankind in the modernised world are such morons, that they can accomplish such wondrous technological feats. That answer is the principle of stigmergy — that even with diminished individual intelligence (or a lack of cognition entirely), one can still witness, when performed as an aggregate, be it by the “sum of humanity” or a good portion of the ant colony, some extraordinary feats that deceptively suggest wisdom or “higher thought.” “Intelligence” is externalised to the superorganism — one merely needs to follow one’s simple set of cues, in automatic response to the somatic architecture of codified society and re-designed environment, to do one’s little part in achieving this feat, this feat that no longer belongs to one man but to “all.” It is the “tragedy of culture” once upon a time referred to by the early sociologist, Georg Simmel — man is born with the capacity to perform a wide range of functions, and to exercise the full extent of his creative capacity thereby, giving rise to what Simmel termed as the “subjective culture.” But as “objective culture” grows — that is, as that creative reflex and force, and the intellectual faculties that loan itself to it, are increasingly divorced from a man and externalised in the sum of society’s cultural stores and institutions — subjective culture necessarily shrinks. Put another way, man no longer acts as “creator,” no longer walks as a living god, independent and a shaper of culture — he is instead shaped and increasingly controlled and constrained by the culture he no longer contributes significantly to in his disposability, which does not require him to understand, comprehend, or consent to the “big picture.” It is the stark difference between the tribal man and the “civil” man; the rich of spirit and the internally-depauperate; the society of peers versus the divided society of masters and slaves; the subjectively-cultured versus the objectively-cultured; the primitively-social versus the eusocial.
It was all too appropriate for Aldous Huxley, in his dystopian vision of civilisation’s future as described in Brave New World, to call the drug that helps keep all of the social castes, from the intelligent Alpha to the sub-human Epsilon, in happy, oblivious obeisance — “soma.” It was the elixir of choice to the gods and holy men of some of the most ancient Indo-European/Indo-Iranian civilisations. It stirred up exaltation and unparalleled invigouration for the rites, rulers, and cultural pursuits of the divided society, of elites who have all at the expense of the masses who have little. And in the Huxleyian dystopia, it is the chemical decoction that helps realise the perfected project that these gods at the dawn of civil history had always aspired to, of germinal elites now and forever served by the docile, stupid, masses, bound together as cells in one soma — one body — under the wakeless, shared dream of their designed infantilism, dependency, and divine pharmacology.
That is the consequence of “giving up” the greater part of yourself, or giving up yourself entirely, by allowing a countless chain of others to furnish for you what the intelligent being designs for itself. The discerning intellect is gradually stripped from the individual, for, as stated before, such high-end cognition is unnecessary, and even a liability, in a eusocial organisation. Why maintain the ability to see beyond your particular organ within the soma, or the ability to think your way out of the “mill,” when the “colony,” in its purpose of serving the reproductive elite caste, can be maintained just as well with everyone doing their own little part, not seeing or thinking much beyond that? So long as the environment is mostly static, controlled, bureacratically efficient — amenable to act as stigmergic cues, in other words — then it works just fine, and it is no great loss to the superorganism’s end — no great loss towards the maintenance of the elite, in other words — when there is a hiccough in the system that results in a few thousand, or a few million, of the disposable workers dying because their paltry, homogeneous intellects cannot calculate their way out of the abnormality. Red means stop, green means go. Always use the timecard machine to punch in and out of work. Be obedient and obsequious towards those who bear a signal of an authority or higher caste. If you work hard enough, without question, without a tremour within one’s diminishing consciousness, after all, you will be rewarded with the knowledge that you selflessly sacrificed your own health and wealth for the reproductive advantage of one’s king, queen, or general rulers. What more could you ask for?