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We have many examples of social animals and insects in nature, but some of them are able to cooperate and build elaborate structures, while others simply hunt in packs. What is even more impressive is that the complex endeavors do not rely on engineering, there are no plans, and there are no foremen. How do these animals/insects accomplish such a high level of cooperation?

An instinct for organization

Most social insects and animals do not really engage in cooperation. The activity is more similar to that of a factory, or a large corporation, where each individual performs one or more tasks repeatedly, without any understanding of the overall workings of the superstructure. Of course, this is an oversimplification, employees have at least a general idea of the direction of the company, but it is similar to delegation and specialization in human societies.

In insect hives in particular, tasks are delegated through a stimulus which can be either a change in light or odor. The stimulus will activate the instincts of many members of the colony, and it will indicate that they have to work in a certain location, or on a new project such as creating tunnels to food sources, expanding the current nest, or building a completely new nest.

Innovation in the animal kingdom

Research in the behavior of termites has shown that not only do they act in unison, but that they also innovate. However, this innovation is the result of speciation, whereas in human organizations, the innovation would come as a result of experience. Nobuaki Mizumoto, a researcher who investigated the behavior of termites, found that the workers from the subterranean termite species, Heterotermes aureus (a very common species in the US), would use their mandibles to grab a piece of dirt or sand, carry it back to the surface, and then return to take on another load.

However, when Dr. Mizumoto examined the behavior of the long-jawed desert termite, Gnathamitermes perplexus, he observed that instead of carrying the piece of dirt at the end of the tunnel, the worker would kick it back to the termite behind it, which would then kick it back further, and this chain would continue all the way to the surface.

This difference in behavior can be attributed to many factors, and at first glance, it would be difficult to tell which is more effective (assuming that the first species had a steady stream of workers to collect and transport the dirt). However, what is clear is that this behavior was inherited a long time ago when you had something of an A/B test between two or more different subspecies.

Where does human innovation come from?

Which starts to beg the question, how did humans develop the ability to innovate. It’s clear that in nature it took thousands of years, perhaps more, of evolutionary progress to differentiate between two such simple processes of taking dirt out of a tunnel, whereas humans are able to innovate on something as complex as a microprocessor in the span of a few decades.