Philosophy

Hayek vs. the Ants

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A very interesting piece by the always very interesting Wirkman Virkkala, that asks the not very musical question: Can one reconcile with Hayek the fact that ants seem at the same time socialist and nomocratic, living indeed in "a Marxist utopia, with the bulk of the society switching roles over time and according to need"? Hayek of course believed that, in human terms, liberal social orders had to be nomocratic (that is, rule-based) rather than teleocratic (ends-based, as he saw socialist systems).

I think you already know enough from your reaction to that sentence whether you want to read the whole thing. (And I recommend you do. It's not very long, either.)

For reason's most recent piece on Hayek, see Steven Horwitz's review of Theodore Burczak's Socialism After Hayek from our July 2007 issue.

For much, much more on Hayek's life, time, and thoughts (though very little about ants), see my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. And also check out the book's dedicated blog, somewhat freshly reorganized with all perma-links on the right hand side updated and conveniently categorized to guide you to all past reviews, interviews, excerpts, spinoff op-eds, and audio and video circulating about the book.

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  1. Can one reconcile with Hayek the fact that ants seem at the same time socialist and nomocratic, when Hayek believed that, in human terms, liberal social orders had to be nomocratic (that is, rule-based) rather than teleocratic (ends-based, as he saw socialist systems)?

    They’re bugs?

  2. Is this Timothy or “Wirkman” Virkkala? Are they the same person? (If so, do they know it?)

  3. Ooh, ooh, I know this one!

    “But humans are not ants!”

  4. some dude,

    Ants are in the order Hymenoptera.

    Bugs are in the order Hemiptera.

  5. Are they the same person?

    Yes.

  6. Since this thread seems set to go nowhere, here’s a book about ant-colony optimization.

  7. their actions aren’t based on choice or rational thought. their rules based system is their DNA.

  8. Can’t read Virkkala…..

    He’s a Cosmo!

  9. But humans are not ants!

    except if female humans have nieces and nephews

  10. A little boy was sitting on the curb outside the church. As the Priest approached, he heard the little boy muttering “Goddam ants. Goddam ants.”

    The priest looked closer & saw that the little boy was actually squishing ants with his thumb and with each squish he would mutter “Goddam Ants”

    The Priest said, “Son, what are you doing?”

    “I’m squishing out these worthless, Goddam ants, Father,” said the boy.

    The Priest spoke, “Son, I don’t believe the Lord made any of His creations that didn’t have a purpose. Now go on and leave God’s creatures alone.”

    A few minutes later the Priest looked out and there was the boy, squishing ants. “Goddam Ants. Goddam Ants. Goddam Ants.”

    The priest went out and confronted the boy “I told you that all God’s creatures have a purpose and you are still killing the ants.”

    “Goddam Ants. Goddam Ants.” the boy went right on squishing the ants.

    The priest said “I’ll bet you can’t name even three of God’s creatures that don’t have a purpose.”

    The boy looked up and said “Nuns, Priests, and these Goddam Ants.”

  11. Bad TWC! Bad! As punishment for that, you only get to drink Sangria for two days.

  12. My above comment was for TWC’s 1:18 joke.

  13. Brian Doherty-

    I am surprised that you do not refer to this wonderful Econ Talk interview on ant colonies and economics: Gordon on Ants, Humans, the Division of Labor and Emergent Order.

  14. Haplodiploidy. Seriously, Virkkala, it’s simple biology.

  15. Ali—Since the piece to which I was linking does discuss and link to Gordon, I didn’t feel the need to do so myself.

  16. He’s not a Cosmo. Cosmotarians hate Ron Paul because he is too radical of a libertarian. “OMG! He’s wants to abolish the IRS and the Fed!” Wirkman, on the other hand, despises Ron Paul to the depths of his being because he isn’t radical enough. “OMG! He still believes in morality!”

    You see, Wirkman thinks that a libertarian/anarchist philosophy should not be constrained to politics, but to morality and behavior as well. Whatever is legal is moral, he seems to think. Here is a quote from a recent blog of his against the “paleos”:

    I saw Leviathan as one of the great dangers, but I also recognized churches and families and tribes and even states of nature as loci for the efflorescence of evil.

    That’s right folks. Wirkman thinks religion, family and culture are centers of evil. No wonder he hates Ron Paul who has been married fifty years and goes to church!

  17. Brian- Yeah, I noticed that after I posted. This is indeed a fascinating topic.

    In fact I disagree with Wirkman’s statement:

    Of course, this Marxist utopia explained by Gordon comes courtesy not of rational planning, but by the evolution of nomocratic (rule-following) behavior amongst beings of extremely limited intelligence.

    If there are rules, one has to ask where did these rules come from? A socialist answer would be that there is a central planner. But there is clearly no central planner in this situation. So I am confused by characterizing this as a Marxist utopia.

    What I think happens, instead, is that with time, and through evolution, individual ants learn that following certain evolved rules, survival as an individual ant are more probable. They learn through an iterative process. This seems quite Hayekian to me. In fact, that is exactly what came to mind when I first heard (and read) Gordon.

  18. There is also this talk by Deborah Gordon at TED: How do ants know what to do?

  19. Brandybuck- It must be hard work to pack that many fallacies into a single post.

  20. Disgruntled: I try, I try. Thankfully I have Wirkman to learn from.

  21. But ant “society” (for lack of a better word) is end-based–the end being catering to the queen so she can safely reproduce.

    Actually, I wouldn’t call your average ant-hill a “society” at all–an extended family or tribe would be nearer the truth. Also, the “rules” followed by ants are instinctual. The queen doesn’t give orders because she doesn’t have to.

    The rules of human societies have evolved, but they’re not instinctual. Trading your band’s surplus coconuts for another band’s surplus bananas doesn’t come naturally to humans. Killing the other band and taking their bananas does. That’s why liberal societies take so long to develop (if they ever do) and are so hard to maintain.

    That’s also why most humans think libertarians are nutters with no common sense. ^_^;

  22. Can one reconcile with Hayek the fact that ants seem at the same time socialist and nomocratic, living indeed in “a Marxist utopia, with the bulk of the society switching roles over time and according to need”?

    It is so hard to do cuz the differences between people and ants are hypothetical but the differences between socialist and nomocratic are cut in fucking stone.

  23. The rules of human societies have evolved, but they’re not instinctual. Trading your band’s surplus coconuts for another band’s surplus bananas doesn’t come naturally to humans. Killing the other band and taking their bananas does. That’s why liberal societies take so long to develop (if they ever do) and are so hard to maintain.

    Bullshit…reciprocity existed before nerve cells let alone Homo Sapians.

  24. A Comment from this Wirkman fellow:

    I do not hate Ron Paul. I thought I was very clear in my posts. I am disappointed by Ron Paul’s association with racism and homophobia and such. I have contributed to Ron Paul’s campaign, and, more recently, I have defended Ron Paul regarding earmarks:

    http://wirkman.net/wordpress/?p=212

    Brandybuck’s interpretation of my stance vis-?-vis Ron Paul is jaw-droppingingly off any point I have ever made.

    Oh, and by the way: It is a simple fact of human nature that what we call criminality creeps up easily, depending on the situation. Some of those situations are institutuional, and do not involve the state. I consider this so obvious I find it amazing that anyone would bother to dispute it.

    Back to topic: I do recommend readers watch the Gordon lecture that I linked to, and that Ali has linked to.

    And no, Ottawa Reader, I do not believe that ants act according to a conception of ends and means. Their actions may serve the queen, but I do not think they plot and choose just or even mainly to serve her. This is where “invisible hand” analysis helps. And this is what Gordon was talking about.

  25. I would say that Ants are actually quite capitalist. The colony does not plan decisions, and in fact lacks all leadership. Individual ants make decisions based upon personal incentives that are genetically programmed and which have evolved to facilitate reproduction of the colony. Indeed, ants respond to the needs of their societies with information provided by markets in just the same way that humans do, except that for humans such information is provided through prices which convert societal incentives into personal incentives, while for ants such information is provided in waiting times and pheromone scents, which act directly on the ant. Basically the only difference is that human societies have to mediate profound conflicts of interest between individuals by turning social rewards into something that is directly individually appealing, while ants, because of their collective reproductive system, have markets simply allocating resources to maximize output with no need to use distribution. Where internal conflicts of interest exist (and they do), they are dealt with violently.

  26. Brandybuck’s interpretation of my stance vis-?-vis Ron Paul is jaw-droppingingly off any point I have ever made.

    You’re right, you have not said you “hate” paleolibertarians (and by extension, Ron Paul). That was an unfair hyperbole on my part. But you seem to put a great deal of effort into attacking them. In one article you attack them for upholding cultural norms, and in another for not sufficiently demonizing the Confederacy.

  27. “Sufficiently demonizing the Confederacy” is code for “jew”

  28. Someone once said something like, “Socialism is not suited for humans. It’s suited for ants cuz ants are not individuals. They’re all the same”

    Although I’ll read the piece, that observation is why the premise sounds inane.

    Doesn’t the evidence show that there is no plasticity in ant brain? Everything is hardwired.

  29. A fascinating book, full of regicide, mutiny, hostile takeovers, slavery, etc., is Edward O. Wilson’s “The Ants”.

    The bottom line as to why ant colonies hold together is that

    1) The worker ants are all sterile sisters of the queen ant, and thus have a strong incentive to work together for the common good

    2) The worker ants are all literally brainwashed by chemicals emitted by the queen ant that make her extremely attractive to them

    So, I suppose we could also have a functioning society with the level of personal wealth of ants if we were all brainwashed sterilized quasi-clones of a benevolent ruler — but somehow I don’t look forward that that outcomes of the Bush / Clinton rotating dynasties over the next fifty years or so.

    Oh, and human families are also functioning socialist systems with much the same incentives to cooperate due to close genetic relationships as ant colonies — it’s the scaling up of that system to whole societies that inevitably proves catastrophic.

  30. What I think happens, instead, is that with time, and through evolution, individual ants learn that following certain evolved rules, survival as an individual ant are more probable.

    Ali, individuals don’t evolve genetically, only species do. If you read Edward Wilson’s book referenced above, you’ll see that the evolution of ant species through time is a struggle between the incentive of the individuals to break free of the queen’s control and become a solitary species, or at least a species with a lower worker to queen ratio, and the pressures on them to stick together as large colony-based species so they can exploit certain ecological niches. Basically, an ant colony is functionally one huge animal that can break apart into tiny pieces and thus forage in tiny niches that one huge animal couldn’t get into.

    Confession – ants bring out my inner nerd.

  31. Someone once said something like, “Socialism is not suited for humans. It’s suited for ants cuz ants are not individuals. They’re all the same”

    Although I’ll read the piece, that observation is why the premise sounds inane.

    Doesn’t the evidence show that there is no plasticity in ant brain? Everything is hardwired.

    Ants aren’t clones, they’re sisters. They don’t share identical genetic interests, and thus the pressure noted above for colony species to evolve into individualist species.

    Ants have very tiny brains, so they don’t have much choice about how they act, but their brains do have plasticity in that the controlling chemicals the queen emits change their behavior compared to the absence of those chemicals.

  32. “But humans are not ants!”

    According to Hillary, they are. Think of Hillary as the “queen” and thus your children are her children.

  33. Basically, an ant colony is functionally one huge animal that can break apart into tiny pieces and thus forage in tiny niches that one huge animal couldn’t get into.

    Years ago, I read a sci-fi book which used the premise that certain ant colonies were a ‘brain’– an intelligence. Man, I can’t remember the book now.

  34. But ant “society” (for lack of a better word)

    Oh, it’s a perfect word for an ant colony! A smart lady on another forum I used to frequent used to say, “Insects build societies. Human beings build civilizations.”

    I think she nailed it!

  35. Baked, thanks.

    Sangria? That’s pretty harsh, man.

  36. My bestowing Tim V with the Cosmotarian label was mostly in jest.

    However, I was profoundly disappointed to see the pronouncement to the Economist wherein Mr V asserted that RP’s goal with the racially charged newsletters was to foment a race war (like that could EVEN happen) in the wake of RP’s miserably failed run for the roses. That strikes me as mean spirited idle speculation designed to make RP look worse than he already did. Not very cool.

    None-the-less, I enjoyed reading Mr V in the old days of Liberty Mag, and, despite Mr V’s cosmo leanings, I did read the ant story despite my comment to the contrary.

    Drink!

    Danny, bring us a bottle of good red and glasses for my friends here. [makes a sweeping gesture with both hands]

    Yes, bring a glass for the cosmo as well.

  37. prolefeed- I am gonna read the book. My approach has never been biological. I deal with autonomous systems. Recently, people have been looking at biological systems for inspiration. I was never as convinced about bio-inspired autonomy until I heard the conversation with Gordon at Econ Talk. I will not almost certainly pursue that further.

  38. Ali, Biology is real.

    Take a walk down the beach on a hot summer afternoon and you’ll know what I mean.

  39. TWC- Hehe… yes. They are just very sophisticated despite their tiny tiny brains. Too sophisticated for us to understand how they really really work and then implement their mode of thinking on non-biological, artificial (i.e., robotic) autonomous systems.

  40. Years ago, I read a sci-fi book which used the premise that certain ant colonies were a ‘brain’– an intelligence. Man, I can’t remember the book now.

    Paul,

    Was it the Green Brain by Frank Herbert?

    God, I am such a nerd – I read the book once, 20 odd years ago and I remembered the title almost instantly…

  41. Ali, Biology is real.

    Take a walk down the beach on a hot summer afternoon and you’ll know what I mean.
    Ali | January 25, 2008, 10:20pm | #

    TWC- Hehe… yes. They are just very sophisticated despite their tiny tiny brains. Too sophisticated for us to understand how they really really work and then implement their mode of thinking on non-biological, artificial (i.e., robotic) autonomous systems.

    Umm, I thought TWC was talking about hot chicks in bikinis — THAT kind of biology. In which case Ali’s comment about “tiny tiny brains” is liable to bring on a serious case of whoopass by Jennifer.

    Or maybe I should just step away from the table full of hallucinogens and chill … 😉

    Ali — gonna either hate “The Ants” or love it. Try to imagine you’re reading about these sci-fi communities of tweaked-out mind-controlled collectivists — except they’re REAL, but so tiny we’ve missed out on all the weird and wonderful shiite going on literally under our feet.

  42. prolefeed- That is so funny. That didn’t even cross my mind. But now that I know what you and TWC are talking about, ah, yes, Biology is real indeed. Tiny heads? Even Jennifer will grant me that for of these “biological systems”. 🙂 Note that I have not said that all such live and hot “biological systems” have tiny tiny brains.

  43. Sheeesh… I almost got myself into trouble with Jennifer. Correction:

    Even Jennifer will grant me that for some of these “biological systems”.

  44. That didn’t even cross my mind. But now that I know what you and TWC are talking about…..

    Just leave your man-card in the drop box by the door. Apparently the magnetic strip on the back has been worn thin and needs to be replaced.

  45. Boy, have I made a fool of myself! 🙂

  46. “But humans are not ants!”

    According to Hillary, they are. Think of Hillary as the “queen” and thus your children are her children.

    It takes an ant hill?

  47. Paul:

    God, I am such a nerd

    It’s ok, Paul. We nerds/geeks shall inherit umm…a rather attractive segment of cyberspace.

  48. Years ago, I read a sci-fi book which used the premise that certain ant colonies were a ‘brain’– an intelligence. Man, I can’t remember the book now.

    It’s non-fiction, but Douglas Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, Bach uses anthills as a metaphor to illustrate how (he thinks) consciousness arises in the brain. He also makes the point that “there is no such thing as one ant”, which has stuck with me. The “evolutionary unit” of ant-dom is the anthill. The “queen” is just the anthill’s reproductive organ. During mating season, each anthill produces both eggs (new queens) and sperm (drones).

    So, to bring it back to the original post, you might as well say that the cells of your own body are “socialist”.

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