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jeudi 17 juillet 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Human Ant

The human ant, Pseudomyrmex sapiense, is one of the most extraordinary creatures in the world. Or, to be more precise, it is one of the most extraordinary colony of living beings in the world. Making its first recorded appearance in Jean-Claude Toubib’s “Insectes des Amériques, et autres petites bêtes” (Insects of the Americas, and other small creatures), written in 1547, its existence has been largely hidden from the public eye, for reasons that are all too obvious.
The human ant is a close relative of Pseudomyrmex ferruginea, a species who lives in symbiosis with a tree, using the plant as a nest in exchange for protection against predators and pests. When humans first settled in central America, ferruginea’s habitat, about twenty-thousand years ago, it seems that the ants evolved to establish a similar symbiotic relationship with humans. The humans would carry the ants within their bodies, and enable them to access resources that would otherwise stay out of reach for the small insects. In exchange, the ants would scout out the area at night, leading their hosts to plentiful patches of food, as well as serve as an alarm system for approaching danger. At least, modern theories suggested that this is the beginning of the human ant’s evolution. But it does not stop there.
Curiously, the human hosts of the ants would, at the end of their life, drown themselves in deep, eutrophic ponds. These waters, devoid of oxygen in the lower layers, have ideal conditions for conservation of soft tissues as well as bones. Due to their small size, and the fact that they are an inhospitable habitat to most forms of complex life, they are usually devoid of fossils. However, the peculiar habit of human ant hosts has created what is believed to be the most complete record of mammal and insect evolution to this day. It is this find that enables us to retrace the story with great precision on a morphological scale, which in turn allows us to infer much of what has transpired on a behavioral and evolutionary scale.
One way or another, the ants took greater and greater control of their human hosts, to the point that they became able to influence, and later control, their host’s movements. Since the needs of the two species were not entirely aligned (the nature of preferred food, the amount of sleep humans needed, as well as the large amount of energy consumed by their brain), the ants used their new-gained influence to skew host behavior in their favor. In the beginning, this was mainly done through the release of specific pheromones, but in later specimens, clear physical alterations can be seen.
As the relationship progressed, the ants started to infect humans at an increasingly early stage in life, which allowed them to “train” their hosts to perform behaviors detrimental to themselves, but beneficial to their guests. In combination, the ants were able to influence the morphological development. At first, it seems their main concern was to increase the space that was available for them, either by increasing overall body size, or reducing the size of specific organs. The brain was no exception, and in less than a hundred generations, the majority of human hosts were left with only their reptilian brain, and the parts that controlled motor function and sensorial input. The prefrontal cortex had disappeared completely, and infected individuals lost the ability to perform higher cognitive functions.
These specimens, driven solely by their guests’ pheromones, were equivalent to robots. Machines at the mercy of their masters, unable to take any independent actions, procreating only when the ants needed a new home. And so they remained until this day, even though no significant changes in the human DNA have been found.
Toubib’s manuscript, when he presented it to his colleagues, caused an uproar, and it was quickly decided that it should be banned. But interest in the ants did not die so quickly. Several people in the nobility, as well as a number of eminent scientists, saw the human ants as the perfect workforce.
They would do the most strenuous of tasks without complaining, as long as it allowed them to reap something of benefit to their insect hosts. And the things most valuable to ants are not the things most valuable to man.
In the years that followed, several expeditions set out to bring back specimens to the old continent, and explore their potential as cheap, obedient labor. However, it soon became clear that the ants, once removed from their natural habitat, were very hard to train, being incapable of understanding the concept of a differed reward (e.g. working today to get paid tomorrow). The project was quickly abandoned, although some specimens were kept in secret, either for “fun”, or to be used in tortures (the prospect of becoming an ant-riddled zombie could cause even the most hardened soldier to confess).
In recent times, however, interest in the ants has resurfaced. The way the manipulate the human mind, and the precision with which they managed to eradicate cognitive functions while preserving the physical control mechanisms of the brain, might hold a clue as to where “intelligence” comes from. It might also enable us to better understand the functions we perform everyday, and enable us to build artificial systems that can perform physical tasks as well as actual humans. And who knows, somebody might just stumble upon a way to train the ants ?

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