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Charlie Dog, Golondrinas, and the Impossibility of Ants
A Deep Study
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This morning when I emerged groggily into something resembling consciousness, I didn’t know that I was going to establish the impossibility of ants. Here was a deep philosophical matter, creeping up on me surreptitiously.

The dogs as usual came thundering in to see whether we still existed and, having ascertained that we did, offered to have their ears scratched. Such are dogs. Our felines, Cat and Other Cat, sleep on the bed with us—north of the border, there is probably a federal law against this—and also want our attention. Why? They get nothing by sleeping with us. We feed them anyway.

Dogs intrigue me by their distinctiveness of personality and range of emotions: Anger, affection, fear, curiosity, jealousy, concern, and guilt. Scientifically speaking, I am not sure whether this is proper. They were street dogs however, and perhaps not cognizant of the more advanced theories. They do understand guilt, whether they are supposed to or not. When we come home and Charlie has a hang-dog expression, and grovels in submission, and doesn’t run over to greet us, we know he has been digging in the garbage, which is forbidden. He knows it too.

Our dog Africa, who is very long and low and pretty and seems to be a cross between a Border Collie and a fire hose, is an hysteric. When I walk downstairs she barks joyously and rushes madly about, as though I were Zeus Descendant, even though she saw me go upstairs half an hour earlier and knows that I always come back down. You can’t be out of your mind unless you have one to be out of, is what I say.

Which brings us to golondrinas, swallows. (You may not see why it does. Well, it does.) We have a nest of them in a corner of the downstairs terraza. They produced five eggs this year, and sat on them as is right and fitting for golondrinas. When the nestlings appeared, the parents tirelessly brought them, every few minutes, a portion of whatever swallows eat. When the little buggers reached the age at which flying began to seem a good idea, the parents began hovering inches from the nest, as if saying, “See? This is how you do it.” They had not done this before.


Our ornitho-chillun, deeply suspicious because they know Someone Is There

One of the new birdlets flew tolerably well for a beginner, but landed on the ground where there are cats. (Actually we had locked the cats inside for precisely this reason, but mother swallows don’t always know this.) The parents landed next to it and began pecking the little fellow unpleasantly, until it took off and went back to the nest. I have read that they do such things purely on instinct and do not know why they do them. How would one know this? Personally, I think they suspect cats.

I know that birds are biological automata running on chemically programmed code, and have no feelings or idea of what they are doing. I know this. I just do not believe it. Further, I do not understand the almost universal affection people feel for the very young. The very young of about everything: young puppies, kittens, burros, golondrinas. In terms of evolutionary biology, which we are told governs everything, affection for young swallows is hard to figure. They are fearfully ugly, being all mouth and no brain, which I concede suggests an evolutionary connection with network anchors. But we are quite fond of them. (Not the network anchors.)


Not much ant, huh?

I will now offer a formal proof of the nonexistence of ants. First, we will note the above ant on top of the eye of a needle. We will further note that there is almost no ant there. We will now ponder the size of its brain, to include distributed parts of it. If an ant is so small that it almost isn’t there, and most of an ant consists of legs, chitin, digestive things, and so on, then its brain, to include all of its nervous tissues, is greatly more isn’t-there.

We will now consider what an ant can do. First, it can walk. If you think this is no great shucks, talk to a robotics engineer with a cable-connected supercomputer. Ask him how easy it is to make six legs with multiple joints each work together while climbing over things. If you think about the amount of sensory feedback necessary to know where these legs are at a given moment, and what the pressures and angles are, you will get dizzy. The ant does it effortlessly, with about as many brain cells as a congressman has IQ points. This would suggest perhaps three brain cells.

There is worse, much worse. That same ant, with only three congressional brain cells, can interpret the data from both of its compound eyes and its ocelli—tiny non-compound eyes. Now, the guys who wrote PhotoShop could merge all those inputs from a jillion ommatidia and come up with something reasonable as an image, but doing it in real-time, in the equivalent of about six lines of code, with three brain cells for processing power—they would run screaming to the nearest bar and begin living under a park bench.

The same ant knows, somehow, to dig a nest properly, to run like hell when it is scared, and to care for the queen and the eggs and larvae. It manages its internal organs and antennae. It knows how to groom itself, putting it ahead of many teenagers, and how to find food, which requires operating the senses used to do this. I could go on. But since each of these things is impossible, so is the ant. Therefore, ants do not exist. QED.

(I suspect that the impossibility of several things in one nonexistent ant is the product the individual impossibilities. I will leave this matter of multidimensional impossibilities to the reader as an exercise.)


If I may lapse momentarily into unwonted seriousness, I claim these picnic micromonstrosities pose a baffling question of cybernetics. They must be doing something far beyond the grasp of our tiny boiling imaginations. Replicating an ant in hardware of the same size is out of the question. Molecular computing? Well, the little beast does it some way. Humans with our quart-and-a-third of mushy brains can do much more than ants can, but not proportionately more. The nerve tissue of how many ants would be needed to fill on human cranium?

To which I usually get the witless response, “But Fred, ants have an entirely different kind of brain.” That’s not the answer. It’s the question.

(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution 
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  1. Sam Shama says:

    Great ruminations!

    Question: How long have ants existed thus? i.e, what do we know about their ‘evolution’? (We think we know something about humans in that regard, no?)

    We are getting closer and closer to molecular circuits and molecular assemblers (have you read Drexler?)

    • Replies: @rod1963
  2. Single celled paramecia can swim around, find food and avoid danger. So information processing ability (probably quantum) exists at a subcellular level. It is conjectured for modeling estimates that each cell is a “super computer” and synaptic connections are “ethernet” ports and/or memory storage.

  3. ” I know that birds—– I just do not believe it”
    Inclined to agree Fred. I have been logging notes on bird activities for many years, on and off. We came down here to the Cape coast, Indian ocean side, recently from Joburg. The cape wagtails are profuse and came into the kitchen from ‘get go’. I threw a fragment of cheese to one and it never touched sides, so we continued doing this. A neighbour then told us that they loved cheese which, although we had many wagtails in the garden in Joburg, I never knew. This continued for weeks until eventually, they came into the kitchen on a morning ( strangely only ever, one at a time. One flew out,another flew in), and stood in front of the fridge waiting for us to take the cheese box out. You tell me.

  4. Immigrant from former USSR [AKA "Florida Resident"] says:

    Absolute pleasure — to read this lovely poem. Bravo, Mr. Reed !
    Different, but emotionally equally strong kudos to Mr. Unz,
    who keeps Fred Reed on the pages of Unz Review.
    Humbled, F.r.

  5. pyrrhus says:

    Kudos Fred! I think the answer for ants, apart from the sheer mystery of nature, is quantum superposition of molecules in their brains. Scientists have recently discovered that this phenomenon, in which molecules, like fundamental particles, can exist in multiple states at the same time, explains the impossible efficiency of photosynthesis in plants. Impossible, I tell you…..

  6. unit472 says:

    Ants, like bees and humans ( well some humans) seem to have some sort of ‘collective’ intelligence. They build complex societies ( no unemployment or welfare spongers in the ant or bee society ) and build things of such complexity that no one ant, bee or human could possibly understand or organize it all.

  7. I am sure your neighbors love your constantly barking dogs.

    Why do you have so many pets? All the kids gone?

    Is your girlfriend’s mean 13 year daughter now grown up?

    • Replies: @Rich
  8. Jim says:

    Fred – Parental investment in offspring on the part of swallows is hardly surprising from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. The offspring of swallows who paid no attention to their offspring would have zero chance of surviving so it’s hardly surprising that the kind of swallows who have survived for us to observe them are devoted to their young.

    The capabilities of biological organisms are certainly astonishing and amazing but there is no reason to believe that they are supernatural. Nothing you have said here contradicts anything in evolutionary biology. Nothing in evolutionary biology predicts that it is impossible for ants to have highly effective neurological systems.

  9. Jim says:

    Fred – Nothing in evolutionary biology denies the existence of internal subjective states of organisms. Obviously dogs as well as humans have internal subjective states. Internal subjective states are not supernatural.

    • Replies: @The Plutonium Kid
  10. DH says:

    Life is full of irreducible complexities.
    Darwinian evolutionism is simply the wrong frame to try understanding such things.

  11. Rich says:
    @leftist conservative

    My kids are grown and gone and my house is full of pets, but it was when the kids were still here, too. What’s better than a dog? The cats belong to the wife and nominally to the girls when they come home for a visit, but the dogs belong to everyone. I’ve never met a person who was better than a dog, but maybe that’s just me.

  12. Wally [AKA "BobbyBeGood"] says: • Website


    If I may, why did you name your dog ‘Africa’?

    Because she is “… a cross between a Border Collie and a fire hose…”?

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Jupiter, ergo fred reed does not exist.

    disprove that.

  14. rod1963 says:
    @Sam Shama

    We better hope not. That stuff will be weaponized within a week of it being functional. Every country whose involved in that research knows the first to deploy will be the country that rules the world or start WWIII when the other sides panic and see what’s in store for them.

    Real AI would be even a worse nightmare for all. There’s a reason some of the wheels of Silicon Valley and players like Musk are very nervous about this because they’ve thought it through and it scares the bright green piss out of them.

    We’re messing with things that are really, really above our pay grade. We’ve confused cleverness with intelligence and wisdom for far too long and it’s going to bite us in the ass.

    This goes doubly for the scientific community who thinks they know everything.

    • Replies: @Sam Shama
  15. @Jim

    Yeah, but what are they doing there if they’re not needed?

    • Replies: @Kim Kardashian
  16. @The Plutonium Kid

    The Plutonium Kid: “Yeah, but what are they doing there if they’re not needed?”

    Why are bones white and blood red if they’re not visible while the organism harboring them is alive?

    Consciousness is certainly an interesting, baffling phenomenon, and it’s not a waste of time, in my opinion, to attempt to figure how it arises from (or is in some sense tantamount to) the goings-on in the brain. However, it might not be necessary to explain its function for the same reason that it’s not necessary to explain the function of the whiteness of bones or redness of blood. These attributes are just secondary, tag-along attributes; they exist because they happen to be attributes of substances (certain molecules in bone and blood) that actually do have functions. In the case of blood and bone, it’s enough to simply figure out the functions of the white and red substances that comprise them to understand why their whiteness and redness exist. We can also go on to explain why these substances are white and red, but it’s a shortcut to nowhere to ask what the functions of the whiteness and redness are. The same might be true of consciousness; we might only need to explain the functions of the sorts of information processing that “give rise” to consciousness and explain how those sorts of information processing give rise to it. If we can accomplish these tasks and if, in so doing, it becomes apparent that those sorts of information processing are advantageous (or “needed,” to use your terminology), then the question of why consciousness is needed will become nonsensical in the same manner that the question of why the whiteness of bone is needed is nonsensical.

    • Replies: @John Jeremiah Smith
  17. Renoman says:

    Love ya Fred, you’re closest thing I have to a Hero!

  18. Sean T says:

    No mention of negroes? Wow, this is third article in a row without Fred’s musings on the African.

  19. Sam Shama says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you. As far as AI is concerned, we do have the First Move in the game. Someone will get there soon. I would much rather it be the U.S., which at the moment has the lead followed by Japan and U.K.,

    You know the arrival of radical abundance (Drexler coined the term), is incredibly attractive and can lead to an eradication of shortages in food and energy(possibly war? since most wars are over resources at the most basic level).

    • Replies: @cloudswrest
  20. @Sam Shama

    Radical abundance, where all needs are met except lebensraum, will lead to a “mouse utopia” and extinction. See:


    • Replies: @John Jeremiah Smith
  21. KFoy says:

    Great article, I have three words for you “molecular junction diode” the next big thing in computing. Natural selection is 4 billion years ahead of human electronics, so what do expect!

  22. @cloudswrest

    Radical abundance

    There’s Mars. And Titan. That’ll put some evolutionary stress on radical abundance. And maybe there’s FTL travel. Closed systems are imposed from outside; for now, the outside looks unlimited.

  23. @Kim Kardashian

    Why are bones white and blood red if they’re not visible while the organism harboring them is alive?

    No evolutionary breakpoint at the “color of bone” level that affects reproductive success. Is all bone white? (No.) If white bone is attacked by an unspecified actor, and breaks down more easily than non-white bone, then the color of bone would be an evolutionary breakpoint. I believe the term “cusp” is sometimes used. Would it make a difference if white blood cells were the same color are red blood cells — that is, leukocytes and their specialized functions being “white blood cells”. It might.

  24. jb says:

    I understand scientists are trying to use computers to model the brains of the nematode worm C. elegans, which has precisely 302 brain cells (i.e., far fewer than any ant). 302 doesn’t sound like much, but if you start thinking about how many ways there to connect even that small number of cells, you’ll discover that the number is huge. Once you understand that, ants won’t seem so impossible any more.

    (BTW, while I think ants probably don’t have any feelings, I think birds probably do).

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