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Alien Scientist: Cities Fit For Insects

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: October 2006, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

The nests of social insects have long rivalled humans’ cities for the claim of being Earth’s most sophisticated built environments. In Self-Organization in Biological Systems, Scott Camazine and colleagues have described termite nests as ‘air-conditioned skyscrapers that are immensely larger and arguably more sophisticated than the vast majority of human buildings.’ These ‘biological superstructures’ are constructed over a period that may span many individual lifetimes. Some ants’ networks are several million times the size of an individual ant. The ants create super-colonies containing more than 20 million individuals – an order of magnitude only recently achieved by human cities.

To the human eye, the ‘cities’ of social insects may seem like marvels of some alien society, that inspire us to wonder at the ingenuity of their builders. Perhaps an extraterrestrial observer would similarly be fascinated by humanity’s built environment. Imagine an alien expedition approaching Earth. From some distance out in space, humanity’s urban constructions might simply appear as discolourations on the surface of the Earth, with cities, towns and villages joined up by communication lines, like the strange splodges and veins of mould on a piece of cheese.

Now let us imagine the aliens approaching a particular built-up area. As they get closer, the vertical aspect of the urban area will become clearer, and city resolves itself into a vast array of individual upstanding buildings. To the alien scientists on the expedition, the city starts looking less and less like a geological outcrop, but more like a vast biological construction, just like the termites’ towering nests they have seen in their extraterrestrial textbooks.

An alien architectural specialist would marvel at the diversity of different kinds of buildings – from the grandest skyscraper towers down to small wooden buildings and tarpaulin shacks in the park, and might first wonder if these different architectures were created by different species. After all, to the untutored human eye, all termite mounds may look the same, even though they are made by different species of termite.

Of course, as is sometimes remarked by human commentators, any extraterrestrial observer might think that the vehicles are the local life-forms, with the built environment created for their benefit. So much of the city’s surface area is given over to them; the curving expressway ramps and monorail lines seem designed to allow them to get about easily. The cars fit snugly in their garages, as the subway trains fit snugly in their subway tunnels.

But on closer inspection, the alien biologists in the team would soon notice the soft (but partly wrapped) creatures of different colours inside the metallic ones, and eventually conclude that the whole city – the buildings, towers, bridges, expressways and vehicles – is constructed by a single species of bipedal Earthling.

So, as the aliens gaze over the metropolitan region, seeing miles of development stretching to the smog-filled horizon in every direction, they marvel at how all this could have been created by creatures so small and puny. How ingenious to create buildings so tall, relative to the height of their individual bodies, or cities so long-lived, relative to the lifespan of the individual organisms.

The shape, size and structure of the buildings makes sense, as these relate to the shapes and sizes of the individual humans. Because humans tend to live and work in modest sized groups, individual properties tend to be relatively small. Vast though the city is, and large though many office towers are, these are usually broken down into much smaller sub-units, housing smallish groups, that rarely exceed a small fraction of the total population, and are most likely to house individuals or groups of twos, threes or fours.

These groups all eventually link up in what we call society, but it is not as rigidly structured a society as is found with social insects. If it were – if, for example, we were all directly related and ruled over by a matriarchal queen running a totalitarian regime – our society might be housed in a single gigantic hive-like dwelling. But city-sized human societies are rarely structured this way, and so the human city is not structured like a large building.

If the Earth were being considered for occupation by human-sized alien social insects, the prospective settlers would be pleased to find that they would fit into our buildings, scuttle along our corridors, drive our cars, sit at our desks and sleep in our beds. But while their individuals would fit our buildings, their society would not fit our cities, because they are so differently structured. The alien social scientists might advise giving Earth a miss, and look elsewhere for cities fit for insects.

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