2.3 Structured and functional results
While the paper wasps provide another example of goal-directed, systematic behaviour, perhaps this case study’s most noteworthy feature is that not only is the activity of the wasps decidedly regular and methodical, but the end result is also highly structured. There are countless other examples we could cite of animals building serviceable, complex structures – shelters, nests and colonies, specialised tools, and devices to catch prey. Such constructions are all highly functional: they appear beautifully fashioned to serve the particular purpose they were built for. The end product perfectly serves the original goal.
Structure and function are qualities we associate with human artefacts. Nature tends to deal in chaotic, fractal patterns. Most of you will have flown high over the land in a jet airliner and observed the scene below: rivers, mountains and lakes are jagged and irregular in shape. The regular outlines of fields, roads and canals tell us that human activity has shaped the landscape. And all around us are countless examples of human purpose: buildings, dams, machines, the software we are using to write this course. These constructions are triumphs of humanity’s ingenuity and planning. An example I can’t resist giving is the breathtaking new Milau suspension bridge in southern France, opened in 2005. With seven piers spanning a total of 2.5 kilometres across the gorge of the River Tarn, it towers 336 metres above the valley floor, making it the highest bridge in the world (higher than the Eiffel Tower). It took more than three years to build and cost €394 million.
Complex entities such as these come about through the process that we call engineering. Now, although you probably feel fairly certain you know what engineering is, it’s worth giving a moment’s thought to the concept.
Imagine you were the manager of the project to build the Milau bridge. Write brief notes on how you might start tackling this problem. I’m assuming you are not an engineer, so I wouldn’t expect a very detailed answer here. Try to give an outline of the approach you would take.
Clearly a system this size couldn’t possibly be built by one person alone, so you would need to appoint a team. This in turn implies that the work will have to be divided up into parts (design, materials, logistics and planning, testing and quality assurance, for example). Possibly one team member could be placed in charge of each part, and each of them would certainly also want to divide their particular task into work units. You would then have to allocate time and resources to each task and fix deadlines for them. You would probably want to draw up a project timeline and use techniques like critical path analysis to predict areas of possible future difficulty. All subtasks of the main units would also have to be costed and allocated time and deadlines. You would need to set up a strong system of reporting and monitoring to follow the day-to-day running of the project.
This is what we might call an engineering approach. Engineering is, of course, concerned with building complex things, usually physical things such as dams and bridges (although software engineers, by contrast, build an intangible entity – software). What I think distinguishes it from other activities that involve making things – cookery, flower arranging, and so on – is that it has to be a highly disciplined and systematic activity. Engineers must plan meticulously, produce careful designs, choose the most suitable materials, conform with all the relevant standards and practices, and work within firm margins of time and money. They will use scientific, technical and mathematical techniques to support this work. One could hardly imagine a more clear-cut example of human intelligence at work. The whole process is obviously ordered and systematic, as one would expect.
However, perhaps the most noticeable feature of this strategy is its top-down organisation. A single directing intelligence sits at the top of a hierarchy of tasks and control. Work is divided into units, which are in turn divided into subunits and become the responsibility of other guiding minds. Information flows up the hierarchy and control, in the shape of decisions and instructions, passes down it. This pattern will be immediately recognisable to you. Many software systems, particularly those built in the earlier days of computing, are structured in exactly this top-down pattern. The design of the systems we build often mirrors the structure of the processes we use to build them.
There are obvious differences between the activity of an engineer and that of nest-building wasps. Quickly note down what you think these differences are. Do you think there are any similarities?
The only similarities I could see between the two cases are that both activities are purposeful, systematic and lead to structured, functional results. As I suggested above, engineering is a disciplined activity that involves planning and design, and is underpinned by the symbolic language of mathematics. Even where mathematical calculation is not involved, the engineer will rely on design drawings and written documentation, both also forms of symbolic representation. It seems incredibly unlikely that the wasps plan their work. Obviously they have no designs to work from, in any sense that we could understand the term. And mathematics must surely be far beyond the reach of an insect.
So there can be no doubt at all that wasps are not engineers. Yet they behave systematically to produce a regular structure, perfectly fitted to the task it is built for. Of course, it would be idle to pretend that the wasps are making anything as complex as the Milau bridge. However, there are similarities between the two cases. Both the human and the insect activity give rise to a structured and functional end-product. And both cases involve a number of independent workers whose activities have to be closely coordinated.
Nevertheless, despite the similarities, there is a sharp contrast between the two cases. Engineering is a top-down, human approach to a complex problem; the wasps seem to be following a radically different path. There is no overall control, no managing brain, no design, no obvious breakdown of tasks. We refer to this sort of organisation as bottom-up. The coordination of the wasps’ work can’t possibly come about in the same way as that of the human engineers – the necessary mechanisms simply aren’t available. For a start there is no overall controller: the medieval notion that the queen’s role is somehow like that of a human sovereign is a fantasy; queens simply lay eggs. And even if there was some important wasp in charge, there are no obvious ways it could communicate orders to the rest of the swarm. Insects do communicate, as we shall see later, but nevertheless there is no practical means by which messages could reach the widely distributed builders and foragers. However, the insects do seem to work together remarkably effectively, with convincingly practical results.
Our tendency to take regular, functional structures to be evidence of superior intelligence at work was perfectly expressed by William Paley (1734–1805) in the following very well-known observation from his Natural Theology of 1800. He asks us to imagine walking on a heath and striking one’s foot against an object we think at first is a stone, but which on closer examination turns out to be a watch. He goes on:
... when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive ... that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it... the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.
Let’s now try to round off this discussion of natural intelligence, first with a brief recap and then with some conclusions.
Write brief definitions of goal-directed behaviour, systematic behaviour and structured and functional results, as they’ve appeared in this section, giving one example of each.
Goal-directedness is simply acting in such a way as to reach some clearly defined objective, such as when a homing pigeon flies back to a fixed place, or an animal forages for food. I’ve given a number of examples of behaviour that are systematic – that is, they seem to follow a pattern or some fairly rigid process: organised hunting behaviour, systematic construction of nests and shelters, etc. Lastly, I noted that such systematic activity can result in highly regular and functional products, structures perfectly suited for a particular purpose.