Ant Hills = Brains = Cities


In Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter famously likened human brains to ant colonies.

Achilles: …but what is far more perplexing is all this talk about having conversations with ant colonies. That's impossible. An ant colony is simply a bunch of individual ants running around at random looking for food and making a nest.

Anteater: You could put it that way if you want to insist on seeing the trees but missing the forest, Achilles. In fact, ant colonies, seen as wholes, are quite well-defined units, with their own qualities, at times including the mastery of language….

Tortoise: It seems to me that the situation is not unlike the composition of a human brain out of neurons. Certainly no one would insist that individual brain cells have to be intelligent beings on their own, in order to explain the fact that person can have an intelligent conversation.

Now researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are arguing that cities are like brains:

Just as advanced mammalian brains require a robust neural network to achieve richer and more complex thought, large cities require advanced highways and transportation systems to allow larger and more productive populations. The new study unearthed a striking similarity in how larger brains and cities deal with the difficult problem of maintaining sufficient interconnectedness.

"Natural selection has passively guided the evolution of mammalian brains throughout time, just as politicians and entrepreneurs have indirectly shaped the organization of cities large and small," said Mark Changizi, a neurobiology expert and assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, who led the study. "It seems both of these invisible hands have arrived at a similar conclusion: brains and cities, as they grow larger, have to be similarly densely interconnected to function optimally."

But, of course, sometimes the "invisible hands" that passively grow livable cities are smacked aside and the all-too-visible hands of planners manufacture urban horrors like Brasilia.


The capital of Brazil was designed in the shape of an airplane because the then-president thought airplanes symbolized modernity. In the design, the Congress, the Presidential Palace, and the Cathedral are all near the "cockpit" and the military headquarters are consigned to the "tail." The residents get to live in "superblocks" in the "wings."

In 2001, Reason interviewed urbanist Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  From the interview intro:

… when her masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published, she was assaulting—and shattering—the fundamental tenets of urban planning.

That book was part literature, part journalism, and part sociology; it looked at cities from the sidewalks and street-corners up, not from the Ivory Tower down. Healthy cities, Jacobs argued, are organic, messy, spontaneous, and serendipitous. They thrive on economic, architectural, and human diversity, on dense populations and mixed land uses—not on orderly redevelopment plans that replaced whole neighborhoods with concrete office parks and plazas in the name of slum clearance or city beautification.

Whole Jacobs interview can be found here. Go here for a look at my colleague Jesse Walker's trenchant analysis of Brasilia's flaws. And finally, see the Rensselaer press release detailing the new research here.

NEXT: Just Wait Until You See How They "Execute" a Search Warrant

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  1. Again, with the Hofstadter!!

  2. The capital of Brazil was designed in the shape of an airplane because the then-president thought airplane’s symbolized modernity

    Holy Fucking STUPID!

  3. I hate cities that are planned to be shaped like something. The best cities grow naturally and flow with geological features.

  4. Are y’all trying to entice Joe back here or something? Stop it!

  5. What should a city look like? Houston.

  6. City planning = make-work job? Color me shocked.

  7. Back when I was a wee tad of an undergrad, my best buddy and I (both Philosophy majors) convinced our Philosophy department to do a seminar just for us on Godel Escher Back.

    It was awesome. All three professors attended with the two of us. We made it almost halfway through the book.

    Good times, good times.

  8. Ah, they used the right Hofstadter this time.

  9. RPI Represent!

  10. Loved GEB. Of course, not just cities (or anthills) are similar to brains, the universe is too

  11. It’s amazing how commonplace emergent orders are. Yet we’ve only been aware of them for a relatively short amount of time. The tiny plans of individual actors interact to create unplanned orders. Cities, markets, open source software, evolution, ecology, etc..

  12. GEB, great book.
    Of course, if a city is an anthill, then the city can feed some of its citizens to the aardvark without guilt.

    When the units are themselves complex adaptive systems, you will get intentional, internally generated plans as part of the environment that the system adapts to. City planning is a feature of the emerging order, not a bug.

  13. Like DC, Bras?lia was created specifically to be a capital. Unlike DC, which is actually near major waterway and other cities, Bras?lia was created from scratch in the middle of a Jungle. You basically have to fly there. It’s a ghost town in the weekend.

  14. BigFire: On the bright side, someday the Brazilians will get some sense, move the capital to someplace sensible, the wilderness will reclaim Brasilia, and archaeologists 2,000 years from now will rediscover it and say, “WTF?”

  15. City planning is a feature of the emerging order, not a bug.

    At a certain level you are correct. But that does not mean that it must be government doing the planning, or that the planning must be done in fine detail. The planning can try to direct the emergant order, but it should never make the mistake of thinking it can replace it.

  16. Bras?lia was clearly designed by aliens. Why else would it be in the shape of a Gzz’rKthxUtoo?

  17. But that does not mean that it must be government doing the planning, or that the planning must be done in fine detail.

    Well, governments are, essentially, (if we stretch this analogy) the frontal lobes of the “brains” we call communities, so, yes, some of the planning will necessarily be done by them since that is their primary purpose. As for planning in fine detail…well devil’s always in the details. It is when the details are ignored that you end up with things like Brasilia.

  18. @BigFire: There never was any jungle near Brasilia. Brazil is not a big jungle. The vegetation in the midwest region is closer to a dry savanna, and called cerrado. Brasilia is often as dry as, and sometimes more than, Sahara.

    Brasilia was a city built from scratch in the middle of desertic nowhere, not in the middle of the jungle. A better comparison might be Vegas.

  19. If’n you think about how one neural network works (one node, when triggered, bombards all child nodes with its signal, possibly triggering them, until its stimuli are removed and it no longer triggers… ad nauseum), then the universe itself is one big, VERY complex brain.
    It is composed of mega- and micro-neurons with signal and triggering occurring faster at the micro level (smaller objects and living things, many of which ALSO have brains, further extending the complexity) than the macro-level (galaxies, galactic groups, even individual stars). The primary means of triggering a node is light, as is the way it sends its signal (bombard a node with enough energy and it, itself, will incandesce passing on its signal to nodes receiving from it).

    If we follow only from what we know, i.e. that greater cranial capacity and complexity results in greater intelligence, then the universe is God.

  20. In the anthills, the cities?

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