Monday, March 14, 2011

QOTD: Ant trails and intelligent design

Quote of the Day:
If you’re into ants—and who isn’t?—you can’t do better than follow biologist Alex Wild’s excellent blog Myrmecos (the study of ants is called “myrmecology”). It’s one of the best taxon-specific blogs around.

Alex doesn’t like to deal with creationists, but made an exception when Intelligent Design (ID) advocate William Dembski started making pronouncements on ants. Noting that ants tend to take the shortest path between colony entrances (they also do this when travelling between a colony entrance and a food source), Dembski, writing on February 18 at the ID site Uncommon Descent, pronounced this feat inexplicable by natural selection (ergo Jesus)...

Well, if Dembski had bothered to learn anything about ant trails (and this takes only a few minutes of Googling), he would have realized that embedded in the ants’ tiny brains is not an evolutionary algorithm for solving the Steiner problem, but a simple rule combined with a fact of chemistry: ants follow their own pheromone trails, and those pheromones are volatile. As Wild explains, ants start out making circuitous paths, but more pheromone evaporates from the longer ones because ants take longer to traverse them while laying down their own scent. The result is that the shortest paths wind up marked with the most pheromone, and ants follow the strongest scents.

Wild shows a nice simulation video on his site, demonstrating how, given these simple assumptions, ants wind up taking the shortest trails.

Before we say that evolution can’t explain a behavior, it behooves us to learn as much as we can about that behavior. Dembski didn’t learn jack. And we shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of insect brains to store complicated information, or of evolutionists to decipher how that capacity evolved. A good example is the waggle dance of honeybees.

Alex is actually pretty soft on Dembski, for after pwning him Wild says,
In Dembski’s defense, his error is a common one. Ant societies share enough superficial similarities to human ones that the tendency to anthropomorphize is strong. It is too easy to assume ants solve complex problems the way we humans do, with smart individuals applying brainpower to puzzle them out.

I am not as forgiving. Dembski is not just an average joe expressing bewilderment at the “swarm intelligence” of ants. He is supposedly conversant with evolution and biology, and is making a pronouncement against evolution in a prominent place. He should have done his homework. Thanks to Alex for correcting him, and for demonstrating the unjustified eagerness of creationists like Dembski to say “evolution couldn’t have done that.” - Jerry A. Coyne

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