The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences

Any book endorsed by Christian List must be taken notice of, the introductory chapter available here along with the OUP webpage. Contrary to the extracts below I think we actually have a very good theory as to how individuals (ants) aggregate — it’s called STIGMERGY. In a forthcoming special issue of Cognitive Systems Research we will be presenting papers on human-human stigmergy, a follow-up to an earlier issue on stigmergy.

My aim is to allow us to start freeing ourselves from “the ant trap”—the anthropocentric picture of the social world as being composed by individual people.

We have a poor understanding of the “emergence” of group properties out of aggregates of individuals. Systems of interacting parts often have very different properties than the individuals that compose them. A brain has different properties than individual neurons, an ant colony has different properties than the individual ants, and likewise a society has properties that cannot easily be predicted from the properties of individuals. The diagnosis is that our models of individuals may be ok, but our theories are not good at determining how individuals aggregate into large groups.

We might have poor models of the parts of cells. We might misunderstand how ant colonies aggregate out of interacting individual ants.

Here’s a Ted talk by Brian:

Here’s an article about the book:

And the “ant trap” in the title? Some people see the social world as a kind of ant colony, an allusion to biologist Edward O. Wilson’s theories about ants with no leaders that somehow create a superorganism together.

“It’s an incredibly misleading metaphor,” says Epstein, because it suggests that society is just a superorganism built out of human organisms—but it’s much more than that.