Ants and TCP

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “When people talk about solving complex differential equations as part of the process of catching a tennis ball, they’re joking.”

The argument the Brian uses in Scientists Discover the ‘Anternet’ is one usually applied when quantum mechanics turns up in the realm of biology. Both Brian Thomas and Frank Sherwin have tried to claim that when an organism utilises something ‘quantum’ then it must have been designed by a Being who knows all about how that notoriously difficult to understand subject works. In this case, however, instead of quantum physics we have the simpler system of harvester ants using a similar algorithm to TCP. Pogonomyrmex barbatus (red harvester ant) holeAccording to

TCP, or Transmission Control Protocol, is an algorithm that has long been used to manage traffic congestion on the Internet. The basic premise of TCP is that all transferred files will be sent to their destination in a series of pieces (packets). When each packet arrives at its destination, an acknowledgement signal is sent back to the source. This feedback mechanism is used to determine how much bandwidth is available, and allows the remote system to more accurately control throughput.

When looking at harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), the researchers found that the colony is doing the same thing when foraging for food, but instead of packets it uses ants. When an ant leaves the colony in search of food, it won’t return until it has something to show for it. If there is plenty of food around, it comes back quickly, and more ants are dispatched faster. If it takes a long time, the rate of ants leaving to forage goes down. It’s the same feedback mechanism used in TCP.

Though he doesn’t properly elaborate, Thomas thinks this could not have evolved.

Now, biologists and engineers from Stanford partnered together to find that an algorithm commonly used to regulate web traffic and other data streams closely matches that which harvester ants use to regulate harvesting traffic. They published their results in the online journal PLoS Computational Biology.

They figured that the algorithm in ant brains uses four variables. One describes the rate of outgoing foragers, another describes the amount that the rate increases with each returning ant, and another describes the amount that the rate decreases with each outgoing ant. The study authors related these parameters using two formulae:

  1. an = max(an-1-qDn-1+cAn-d,a), a0 = 0
  2. Dn~Poisson (an)

Who knew ants were so wise?

Obvious biblical allusion is obvious – for once we don’t actually get given the bible reference, though.

The equations seem to have put there to confuse the reader, as you wouldn’t need to be wise so much as omniscient to know what it all means from the scant information given. It’s not really important. What is important is that the ants don’t use the equation themselves and just follow simple, easily evolveable rules. You could produce a similar model of traffic congestion in a city, but there’s no need to put it on the driving test.

B.T. takes this silly logic to the next level with the following:

And of course, harvester ants know so much more. For example, they know what temperature range is healthy for them to forage. They go deep underground during very hot times in the deserts of the Western United States where many of them live. On sunny days, harvester ants usually cease foraging by 11a.m. and restart when temperatures drop to 118-125°F. This means that ants have internal thermometers and that those thermometers communicate with their decision centers.

Yeah, I have no comment on that.

His conclusion, though, is even worse:

Clearly, ants do not go to school. Thus, they must have been given their wisdom from a source outside themselves.

Being taught this at school would count as being “given their wisdom from a source outside themselves” – that Brian does not realise this shows how confined his thinking is. This whole line of reasoning is circular: only if you assume from the beginning that the way that this behaviour came into being was via external design will you conclude that it was designed.

Here’s a similar example of creationists not understanding the ‘wisdom’ of the ants, if your curiosity is piqued.


2 thoughts on “Ants and TCP

  1. Has Brian never heard of an ant mill? Or is that an example of the perfect creation being cursed by sin?

  2. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “When people talk about solving complex differential equations as part of the process of catching a tennis ball, they’re joking.”

    No, I’m afraid not. They are very serious. And that kind of talk is not restricted to creationists. I often see similar things in discussions of human cognition (cognitive science).

    So, no, they are not joking. But they are very confused, perhaps too committed to some ideology.


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