Sunday, January 26, 2014

The All Consuming Swarm

People create some strange ideas when they think about space alien life, mostly we can draw these themes back to some of the stranger creatures inhabiting this earth.  One of the more common themes is the concept of insectoid aliens, and specifically hive mind swarms of insects.  To name a few examples, the bugs in Starship Troopers, the tyranids in Warhammer 40k, and the zerg in Starcraft.

Starship Troopers is an action packed and strikingly absurd sci fi movie based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, wherein humanity is attacked by an alien species of hive minded insects, eight foot tall and razor clawed, they chew through most of the characters in the movie.  It is revealed later in the film (by Neil Patrick Harris) that the insects are controlled by central "brain bugs"  This is an element similar to the zerg in Starcraft.

Starcraft is an old real time strategy (RTS) game (the kind where you get the sky view and control armies from above), recently Blizzard released Starcraft II, so most people play that now, but the original is still ranked as one of the best RTS games ever.  In this game, there is an alien species known as the zerg, they are a hive minded and insect like, however, they have a distinct beast like quality, whereas the bugs of Starship Troopers are strictly insect in nature.

The zerg come in many forms, from small velociraptor like "zergling" to the larger acid spitting "hydralisk".  There is even the large elephant like "ultralisk", wielding bladed tusks.  Some zerg have morphed themselves into immobile structures serving different functions, one type known as a "cerebrate" is like a giant brain that controls mobile zerg, a large "overmind" structure controls the cerebrates.  The zerg also spread a layer of living bio mass across the ground to cover everything, this is known as "the creep".  All of the immobile structure type zerg root into the creep, and so the zerg are like a single living organism.

Warhammer 40,000 is definitely the most convoluted of the three above mentioned, as the name hints, the story takes place in the year 40,000, it is based around a table top roll playing game involving armies of miniature figurines.  There are far to many complex elements to go into, but one of the main themes is about a species of insectoid hive mind aliens that are roving through the universe consuming every organic molecule in their path.  The tyranids as they are called, literally consume entire galaxies before moving on to the next.  They share many aesthetic qualities with the zerg, but have only decentralized mind control, whereas the zerg are centrally controlled by a single overmind.  The tyranids first bombard a planet with meteors that transform and poison the atmosphere, then comes the invasion, after consuming everything, they move on to the next inhabited world.

You might notice the common theme between these three, namely that they all have "overlord" bugs that exert psychic mind control over the swarm.  But how do hive mind swarms work in real life, such as in ants and bees?

Well as you might have guessed, its not through a psychic connection, instead we have to think about neural networks and evolution.  First off, imagine each insect as having a neural network within its head, then if you imagine these networks communicating with each other through chemical or physical signals, you can view the whole hive as a single network.  The coding for this networked behavior is of course in the DNA, but the so called intelligent behavior of an ant colony is an emergent behavior, meaning it is not programmed from the top but emerges from a few basic rules applied by the ants over and over again. These rules were created by evolution and honed over millions of years by groups of insects competing with each other and the natural environment.

This brings us to ants specifically, and to a specific question about ants, which is: Why do ants fight?  The answer is evolution, a process taking place over millions of years that turned ants into the most powerful harvesting and fighting force on the planet, except for humans of course.  So ants fight because competition ensures resources are consumed by the strongest and most adaptable ant colonies.  Yet because of genetic reasons, they still choose to interbreed with other "enemy" colonies, sending swarms of winged breeder wasps to create new colonies out in the world.  This might seem counter productive, seeing as how if two related colonies ran into each other, they would fight to the death, so why create more enemies?  The whole scenario only makes sense when you factor in the genes, competition and reproduction is for the genes sake and not the organisms, and so breeding many more competitive colonies is a productive strategy.

Could evolution produce something like the zerg or tyrianids?  One of the major differences between ants and insectiod swarm aliens is the size, the only reason insectiod forms stay small is because of gravity, so maybe we just have the mass of the earth to thank for the fact that ants never grew to the size of dogs.  Other than this, there is the obvious psychic aspect, could a large hive mind species evolve without the need for psychic connection? If you look at ants, you can see even tiny insect brains can show advanced problem solving behavior without psychic connection, so why not larger animals?

This raises the question of what of intelligence a colonial species with large brains would be capable of, what kind of collective enterprises or advanced communication could be achieved by them?  For the answer to these questions, we need only look in the mirror.  That's right, humans are a perfect example of an advanced hive mind capability, communication allows for group coordination and problem solving on an epic level.

So are we really just like the tyranids, consuming and spreading endlessly with a united communal purpose?  Well, lets hope we have more wisdom than to move from galaxy to galaxy leaving billions of worlds stripped clean of organic matter.  So maybe our massive collective intelligence can save us, after all we have the gift of foresight, so can we not temper our minds and prevent ourselves from becoming the all consuming swarm from our imagination?

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