Saul Bass directed a movie about ants taking over the world. Could that really happen?

Directed by Saul Bass, who is celebrated Wednesday with a Google Doodle, the 1974 sci-fi flick 'Phase IV,' depicts ants developing a superior intelligence.

Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune/AP/File
Fire ants and other insects swarm in water on the shoulder of Louisiana Highway 23 near Myrtle Grove, La., in 2011. Saul Bass's 1974 film 'Phase IV' depicts the emergence of a super-intelligent ant mind.

Graphic designer Saul Bass, celebrated today on Google's home page, is best known for his jazzy yet minimalist opening credits and movie posters. Less known is his science fiction film in which Earth is conquered by ants. 

Released in 1974, "Phase IV" describes a team of scientists who are investigating strange ant behavior in the Arizona desert. Spurred by an unexplained cosmic event, the ants have apparently developed a super-intelligent hive mind.

The ants announce their cognitive leap by constructing modernist sand towers, crop circles, and other geometric patterns. Eventually they lay siege to the scientists, who are trapped in a geodesic dome packed with the best communications technology the 70s had to offer.

The film was a box office flop, which helps explain why it was Bass's only feature film, but it has since gained a cult following. 

And it raises an interesting question: Could ants take over the world?

In a sense, they already have. Ants are one of evolution's greatest success stories. First emerging in the Cretaceous era, they survived the event that wiped out the dinosaurs and proceeded to establish themselves on every continent except the inaptly named Antarctica. Today there are more than 12,000 species that have been described, and perhaps another 10,000 that haven't. On average, ants account for 15 to 20 percent of all land animals, by mass. In their 1990 book, "The Ants," biologists Bert Hölldobler and Edwin O. Wilson write that, at any given moment, there are approximately 10,000 trillion individual ants alive on Earth.

If that figure is correct, it means that, for every man, woman, and child alive today, there are more than 1.4 million ants.     

As entomologist Ted R. Schultz pointed out in a 2000 paper, "ants occupy keystone positions in most terrestrial environments, serving as major conduits of energy and organic material." In most ecosystems, ants are the leading predators of invertebrates; in Central and South America, they are the leading consumers of plants as well. They aerate the soil perhaps even more than earthworms do. They domesticate aphids and caterpillars, enslave other ants, and cultivate fungi. "Interactions with ants," writes Schultz, "have shaped the evolution of diverse organisms to an astonishing degree."

Okay, but could they form a hive mind that exceeds our intelligence, like in Bass's movie?

In an essay about "Phase IV" that appeared in the arts and culture magazine Dot Dot Dot, Rutgers visual arts professor Gerry Beegan describes the centrality of communication to Bass's depiction of the ants:

What worries the scientists and what drives the narrative is that the ants are communicating, passing messages from one to the other, organizing and sharing information across traditional tribal divisions. They are always gathering in groups and waving their antennae at each other. The ants use this shared information to undertake grand building schemes. As [one of the scientists] says: "Think of them building elaborate structures, according to plans which they know nothing of, but which they execute perfectly. So defenseless in the individual, so powerful in the mass."

Ants communicate via pheromones, chemical signals that they detect with their antennae. Foraging ants lay down trails of pheromones pointing the way to food.  Step on an ant – a futile attempt at pest control if there ever was one – and its corpse will likely release an alarm pheromone, signaling nearby ants to flee or attack. There are pheromones that tell ants to when to migrate, when to gather, and when to mate. Some ant species have a "propaganda pheromone" that disorients enemy ants.

But ants are far better known for their cooperation than their aggression. In 2000, scientists discovered a "supercolony" of Argentine ants that had established themselves in southern Europe. Ants from different nests mixed freely with one another, even though they were unrelated. 

The colony stretched for more than 3,700 miles, from Spain to Italy. The researchers called it "the largest cooperative unit ever recorded."

That's not the same thing, though, as an emergent hive mind that leapfrogs over human intelligence. In order for that to happen, the ants would need to organize themselves just so.

The philosophical doctrine of functionalism holds that mental states are not a result of brain matter per se, but from the cause-and-effect relations between its components. Under this theory, a mind – complete with beliefs, desires, and subjective experience – could emerge from silicon chips, a billion Chinese people with walkie-talkies, or, for, that matter, a bunch of pheromone-swapping ants, so long as all of them are arranged in a way that replicates the actions of neurons in a real brain.  

If functionalism is true – a big if – then all the ants need to do to realize Bass's unsettling vision is to start behaving like a giant brain. No anatomical modifications are needed. Sure, the odds of this are low, but then again, so are the odds that evolution would produce something as wondrous as an ant.

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