You may recognize the name Edward O. Wilson whom evolutionists associate with sociobiology. However, the Harvard biologist who passed away in December at the age of 92 was actually more famous for his detailed study of ants. There are currently over 15,000 known species of ants, with probably thousands more, and Edward O Wilson was an authority on ants.
Wilson’s studies included ants that can walk under water to find dead insects or glide from one tree to another or join together to make a raft to carry their queen and eggs to safety away from a flooded nest. Wilson pointed out the complex social organization of an ant colony. He wrote that “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.”
Wilson summarized his work by saying, “Our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.” Proverbs 6:6 gives a similar message: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.” We have considered the ways of ants many times on this website and in our printed journal. You can find links to some of those articles below.
Edward O Wilson was an authority on ants, and although we disagree with his agnosticism and materialistic Darwinism, we applaud him for giving us information about the world of ants. His work reinforces the message of Romans 1:20 that “we can know there is a God through the things He has made.”
You might call it intelligence in numbers. One ant by itself would be dysfunctional without any ability to survive. However, as part of a colony, everything changes. Ant colonies display an incredible amount of “intelligence” because of what we might call the “ant program.”
No ant, not even the queen, tells the individual ants what to do, yet they work together in an amazing way. Each ant reacts to chemical smells from other ants, food, waste, larva, and even intruders. They each leave chemical trails to which other ants respond. Each ant acts autonomously according to the environmental factors and the genetically encoded “ant program” built into them.
The result is an intelligent and efficiently functioning colony working together in complex behavior and problem-solving. Computers use programs to solve problems, and complex computer programs don’t write themselves. So the question we have to ask is, “Who wrote the genetically encoded ant program?” Every ant colony is evidence for a Master Programmer.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have been studying the brains of insects to learn how to build computers that can intercept incoming missiles. Dragonflies successfully capture up to 95% of the prey they pursue – which is usually mosquitoes. The dragonfly doesn’t just aim its body at the mosquito, but rather it points its body at where the mosquito is going to be. You can see the connection between missile defense systems and dragonfly brains.
Dragonflies have specialized eyes that send data to their brains at the equivalent of 200 frames per second, which is several times faster than the human eye. The human brain has many more neurons than the dragonfly–86 billion as opposed to the 250,000. The larger number of neurons in human brains allows us to have cognition and do many things. However, dragonflies are designed to do one thing—to catch their food—and do it fast.
Dragonflies respond to a maneuver by their prey in 50 milliseconds (ms). That requires the eye to detect and transmit information to the brain in 10 ms. The brain has to calculate the dragonfly’s counter-maneuver in 35 ms to leave 5 ms for flight muscles to activate and take the dragonfly to where the mosquito will be. In-flight, the dragonfly must continually monitor the mosquito’s path and recalculate the trajectory. The speed of the process means there is time for only three or four neuron layers to act. Missile defense systems and dragonfly brains must act quickly.
Other insects have neurons designed for specific functions. For example, monarch butterflies have a navigational system that depends on the position of the Sun. Since the Sun’s position changes from morning to afternoon, the butterflies must have a designed system that allows them to always travel in the right direction. In addition to that, they need an instinct that tells them when to start their journey. Ants and bees also have neuron structures that allow them to return to their nest or hive no matter how far they get from it in their search for food.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and Janelia Research Campus are studying these insect brains with the idea of building computers that will allow interception of missiles, prevent cars from colliding, and serve other practical purposes that require focus and speed. Proverbs 6:6 tells us to “go to the ant … consider its ways and be wise.” The design we see in even the simplest of God’s creatures radiates purpose and intelligence beyond that of mechanical chance.
The study of insects continues to find design features that enable them to survive when it seems their enemies should wipe them out. The numerous ant species have a variety of defense mechanisms. Entomologists at the University of Wisconsin have discovered ant armor for leafcutter ants.
Leafcutter ants are small and must protect themselves from larger predatory ants. Researchers found that they have a tough coat of mineral armor. Entomologists studying Acromyrmex echinatior worker ants found that their exoskeleton has a thin white protective coating. After trying various methods to remove that mysterious layer, researchers discovered that it is calcite with high magnesium levels.
The thin protective layer, only 7% of the exoskeleton’s thickness, more than doubles the leafcutter ant’s hardness. When larger soldier ants of another species attacked, they were not able to kill the leaf cutterants.
Ant armor for leafcutter ants is similar to the mineral protection that crabs and other crustaceans have, but scientists had not discovered it in ants before. How did these ants get this protection? Researchers theorize that external microbes the ants carry are responsible. That means this is another example of symbiosis between species–another evidence of design. The scientist leading this study said that learning how this tough coating forms could help technicians develop protective coatings for various products.
It seems that God has given every species of life on this planet protection against their natural enemies. Not only must all lifeforms have a ready supply of food and adequate water, but they must have physical protection. Ant armor for leafcutter ants is only one example of God’s intricate design for life.
Scientists are always studying the methods animals use to obtain food. Foraging often involves more than finding food in the open or running it down. Sometimes it requires the use of tools and adapting the way they use tools. Crows can use a tool to pry the lid off a milk bottle, and seagulls can crack open clam shells by dropping them on rocks from high elevations. In a recent study, biologists observed ants adapting tool use to obtain food.
Researchers found that black imported fire ants (Solenopsis richteri) can use sand to adapt their method of reaching a food source. Researchers filled small containers with sugar water, a favorite food for the ants. This species of ants have hydrophobic exoskeletons, which allow them to float on the water to reach the food. However, when the scientists added a surfactant to reduce the surface tension, the ants sank and drowned.
That was the point where the scientists saw the ants adapting tool use. The researchers provided the ants with sand in various grain sizes. They allowed the ants to choose a way to reduce their drowning risk. One of the study authors, Dr. Aiming Zhou, said, “We found the ants used sand to build a structure that could effectively draw sugar water out of the container to then be collected.” Dr. Jian Chen, another author of the research, said, “We knew some ant species are able to use tools, particularly in collecting liquid food; however, we were surprised by such remarkable tool use displayed by black imported fire ants.”
It is difficult to believe that the ants have a brain that could reason this out, and they did not display trial and error behavior. The response was immediate and indicated that built into the ant’s DNA is something that enables them to secure food. Entomologist Jian Chen wrote, “Our findings suggest that ants and other social insects may have considerable high cognitive capabilities for unique foraging strategies.” Previously cognitive sophistication has been observed in primates and birds, but scientists had thought the behavior was “hard wired” in invertebrates. These ants adapting tool use seems to defy that understanding. According to Dr. Chen, “Our study is the first to touch on this interesting topic.”
We would suggest that the ants’ Creator designed them to live in a wide variety of environments and built the tools into their genetics that would allow them to do that.
It is interesting how difficult it seems to be for humans to practice social distancing to control disease. Scientific American published an article about social distancing in animals. Disease control is a basic need for all animals, but only humans create vaccines. So how do animals in the wild prevent the spread of disease?
Research on spiny lobsters shows that lobsters infected with a virus called Panulirus argus give off a smell in their urine that causes other lobsters to leave the area. Because of the economic value of lobster populations, much research has gone into understanding how this social distancing works.
A particular fungus spreads its spores by physical contact between ants. Other ants keep infected ants away from the colony and especially away from the queen and the nurse ants that take care of the brood to protect the ant population from the threat. Researchers have discovered social distancing in animals such as finches, guppies, mandrills, and mongooses. They all have procedures to isolate infected individuals and prevent the spread of disease.
Interestingly, God’s design for life includes social distancing in animals to stop viruses and fungi from spreading among their populations. Humans should not only be concerned about distancing from infected humans, but also from those animals that can spread diseases that affect humans. Trying to have animal pets that can carry diseases that threaten humans seems to be something we should all reconsider.
The natural world is full of examples of two species living together in a way that each benefits the other. This mutualistic relationship is known as symbiosis. In some cases, the species are totally dependent on the relationship for their survival. In many plant/animal relationships, the animal depends on a plant for food, and the plant depends on the animal for pollination or the spreading of seeds. We see evidence for design in symbiosis.
One of the most interesting symbiotic relationships is between ants and butterflies. Scientists refer to the caterpillar in this relationship as being myrmecophilous, which means “ant-loving.” Dr. Philip Devries has written several articles in scientific journals about the caterpillars of certain butterfly species and their symbiosis with ants. The caterpillars feed on the nectar of croton trees, but they have a mortal enemy in the form of wasps. The wasp will find a caterpillar, kill it by stinging and then eat it. If ants are present, they will drive off the wasp and protect the caterpillar. Devries has covered some croton trees with ants, and they will have many caterpillars, but trees without ants will have very few caterpillars.
So the ants benefit the caterpillars, but what do the ants gain from this relationship? The caterpillars have organs on their posterior which extrude a clear liquid containing amino acids but virtually no sugar. The croton tree has a secretion that is 33% sugar but has very little nutritional value. The ants get vital nutrition from the caterpillar even though what they get is not sweet.
The caterpillar has other ways of attracting ants, including an organ on its back that secretes an ant pheromone that chemically attracts them. The caterpillar also has an organ that attracts ants by sending sound vibrations through the wood of the tree. Because of this feature, Dr. Devries coined the term “singing caterpillars.”
One of the great challenges to evolutionists is explaining how such a complex system of symbiosis happened by chance mutations. The more we study such relationships, the more different systems of design we see in the natural world. The more relationships we see, the more difficult it is not to recognize evidence for design in symbiosis. It speaks to us about God’s wisdom and design that allows the biological world to exist.
We commonly think of animals as opportunists. They find their food and eat it or store it for future eating. One of the characteristics of humans that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we prepare an environment that produces our food. Farmers plant seeds and tend the crops by fertilizing, protecting from threats, and watering when necessary. They also make arrangements for future crops. Entomologists are finding more and more cases where insects do these same things. For example, ant farmers work together to produce their food.
In Fiji, a plant called Squamellaria grows in a cluster with jelly-bean shaped bubbles inside. The opening into the clusters is just the right size for the Philidris nagasau ant to get into the bubbles. As the bubbles send out shoots, the ants defecate inside the cluster, fertilizing the plant. When the plant blooms, the ants eat the nectar it produces. The ants then plant the seeds where new clusters can grow.
Another family of ant farmers is the Atta genus. In their farms, they grow a fungus species that they nourish with leaf cuttings. After cutting off leaf sections, worker ants carry them back to the colony. As the workers transport the leaf cuttings, others ride on the leaves to protect against a parasitic fly species. You might call that pesticide.
At the colony, other ants pulverize and defecate on the leaves to make them ready to nourish the fungi. The ants can’t eat the leaves, but the fungi are their food, and only one fungus species is edible. If another fungus species develops, the ants produce a toxin, which destroys only the invading fungus. This is herbicide use at its best. The Atta ants inspect the fungus several times a day, tending it carefully. The system is so efficient that one Atta nest can grow enough fungus food to feed seven-million resident ants. In the process, the ant colony produces fertile soil that promotes plant growth.
If you saw the 1994 Disney animated Lion King movie, you saw Atta ant farmers at work. Remember that fungi are not photosynthetic. No sunlight is needed for Atta ants to grow their food. They simply carry in the nutrients for the fungi to grow, and then they eat the fungi. We do the same thing with much of our meat, providing plant material for chickens or pigs to eat, and then eating the animals that we fed. In the case of the ants, they eat only one food, which simplifies farming enormously.
We know it takes incredible planning and design to manage a farm. No chance process produces most of the foods we eat. It requires meticulous planning and careful application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. As scientists study insect farming, they see a design that is carefully and intricately produced.
Data on the ant farmers came from Science News, April 25, 2020, pages 16-20. The subtitle of the article is, “Could our agricultural role models have six legs?” This reminds us of the challenge in Proverbs 6:6-8: “Go to the ant … consider her ways, and be wise. She has no guide, overseer or ruler but provides her food in the summer and gathers her food in harvest.” The title of the article is “The First Farmers.” We might amend that to be “God’s First Farmers.”
Would you like to guess how many bugs are in your home? In the fall of 2017 researchers from the California Academy of Sciences published a survey of the bugs in 50 homes in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. The researchers took 10,000 samples from basements, bedrooms, kitchens, and attics. They identified 579 species from the 304 families of arthropods known to science. Arthropods include insects, mites and, spiders.
The researchers found ants, carpet beetles, gall midges, and cobweb spiders in 100% of the homes. In many of the houses, they found booklice, dark-winged fungus gnats, cellar spiders, scuttle flies, and dust mites. Misha Leong who was the lead author of the study says that most homes contain hundreds if not thousands of individual arthropods.
It is interesting that as people move toward buying organic and buying in bulk, they are increasing the bugs in their homes. Indian meal moths, for example, can contaminate oatmeal or chew through a sweater. They lay eggs in our food and closets, and the larvae chew through packaging leaving a mess of silk and frass (waste) behind. If we use the food quickly enough we eat the eggs, and since they don’t hurt us, we don’t even know they are there.
The reality is that we have and will always have lots of bugs in our homes. Many of them are beneficial to us. Booklice, for example, eat fungi and mold. Spiders eat insects and other harmful agents including flies and mosquitoes. Harmful spiders like the black widow and brown recluse are rare. Studies have also shown that many of our chronic diseases are related to our failure to be exposed to biological diversity. Leong says, “Rooms with more kinds of arthropods may be healthier rooms.”
When I was in high school in the 1950s, a human was defined in terms of making tools and cultivating food. The idea that tool use is unique to humans has been disproven many times. Birds, apes, and some fish have all been shown to use tools. We even have examples of animals farming.
In 1967 studies were released showing that Attine ants were gathering fungi into groupings, and then using the fungi as their sole food source. Recent studies have verified that Attine ants get the amino acid arginine from the fungus that they grow in plots. The ants provide the moisture the fungus must have, and the fungus provides the arginine the ants need. This symbiotic relationship is one of many in the natural world that show a critical balance in the processes and workers that allows complex life to exist on Earth.
The definition of what is “human” from a scientific standpoint is very difficult, because complex chemical relationships exist in both the plant and animal kingdoms. These processes can duplicate what is considered to be unique to humans. Things like brain size also cannot be used because of the huge variations that exist among all living things.