Ant Colonies vs Combustion Engines

The capacity for self-organization is an important distinction between complex systems and complicated systems.

Like a rocket, a car engine is complicated: It has many interacting parts that are finely tuned and synchronized. It mechanistically converts energy into force. It is designed. It behaves predictably and controllably.

A colony of ants is complex: A single foraging ant randomly discovers a source of food, and then leaves a pheromone trail on its way back home. Another ant comes across the pheromone trail and follows it. If the second ant finds food at the end of the trail, it strengthens the pheromone signal of the path on its way back to the colony. If there are multiple routes to the same food source, the signal for the shortest path will become stronger since it requires less travel time – a feedback loop that eventually turns the most efficient path into the most popular path.

Complexity creates new forms and structures, but complicated systems remain static. On its own, the engine in your car cannot create new routes to the grocery store, no matter hoccw complicated the engine itself might be. On the other hand, a colony of ants will significantly alter the landscape of their environment.

The Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) pioneered the theory of “order through fluctuation.” He demonstrated that complexity creates order, even though the variables and processes might appear, at first glance, to be chaotic and random.1

It was the laws of thermodynamics unlocked discovery. Your car engine is an isolated (or closed) energy system. If you put the world’s most super-advanced car engine in your backyard and leave it there, it will do absolutely nothing (except cause an eyesore for your neighbours). No matter how complicated the engine may be, it will always rush to thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment (whether it is just sitting in the backyard or revved to its full combustion capacity on the highway).

While we are contemplating the thermodynamic state of the rusting engine, ants are busily going about the construction and expansion of their metropolises. Like us, ants do not live in equilibrium. Their existence depends on constantly exchanging matter and energy with their environment. (As we’ve discussed, the only time living creatures reach full equilibrium is when they die.) Prigogine described this as a “dissipative structure.” Out of the constant exchange/consumption of energy comes order: witness an army of ants cooperatively marching along a self-made path in order to sustain their community. Open energy systems are self-organizing. They must be self-organizing in order to exist at all.

Complexity provides an interesting vantage point on the world. We can see it everywhere: flocking birds, schooling fish, highway traffic, epidemic outbreaks, stock exchanges, viral memes, weather events, coral reefs, revolutions, and large crowds. Self-organization is all around us.

Like ants, it is impossible for us to go about our lives without participating in this massive, endless, collective project of self-organization. No matter how autonomous and unique we like to think of ourselves, our actions, interactions, ideas, and purchases are not unlike the pheromone trails of ants — signals and signs we leave for one another. Every time we move along a route, we create the conditions of the route for others. There is no such thing as non-participation in the colony we create: getting off the beaten path influences the conditions of the path just as much as being an advocate for it.


  1. Jantsch, Erich. & Waddington, Conrad H. (eds.) (1976). Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. p. 95 


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Ant Colonies vs Combustion Engines' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17054
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