Insect Arithmetic--Pure Genius!
by Frank Sherwin, M.A., & Brian Thomas, M.S. *
As entomologists study insects and spiders, they regularly discover examples of mathematical genius hardwired into the tiny-brained arthropods. These amazing insect algorithms light the path of insect origins.
Some insects precisely count years. Residents of the United States’ East Coast anticipated an insect invasion—at least in the more rural areas—in the spring of 2013, which marks 17 years since a particular brood of a unique kind of red-eyed cicada last emerged en masse. They are called “magicicada” for the way these insects seem to magically appear at the same time after 17 years of living as larvae underground. People often mistakenly call them locusts.
According to a recent Associated Press (AP) article that warned New Englanders of the cicadas’ impending romp, some estimate that the mass emergence will produce a trillion cicadas. When the ground temperature reaches precisely 64 degrees Fahrenheit, magicicadas in “Brood II” will tunnel upward and then crawl up the side of a nearby tree or structure. The males emerge first, squeezing out of their molted exoskeletons to fly around and join a half-trillion others searching for mates.
Of course, their onboard precision equipment enables their simultaneous emergence from the soil. Somehow the cicadas count the passage of years, and they also each clearly possess a thermometer to measure the soil temperature while napping underground. Counters and thermometers are useless unless they can communicate—according to appropriately written software—with a central processor. Only then can the organism attach meaning to the data input and act accordingly.
Since similar devices are available at hardware stores, mankind has obviously achieved this technology—machines that send a thermometer’s temperature signal to a central processor. But no human inventor has approached the scale of miniaturization found in insects. No wonder University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum told the AP, “It’s just an amazing accomplishment. How can anyone not be impressed?” Similarly, Mike Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, said, “These guys are geniuses with little tiny brains.”1
So, even secular scientists recognize the genius inside insect instincts. But unfortunately, they wrongly identify the origin of that genius. Even young students understand that genius programming always arises from a genius programmer. Nevertheless, Raupp said, “These guys have evolved several mathematically clever tricks.”1
Why would anyone conclude that evolution, which supposedly involves natural processes that know nothing about prime numbers, counting, or anything mathematical, somehow implanted math skills into insects? Why not a more realistic source, such as a real-live intelligent mathematician?2
Even secular textbooks teach that one way to recognize a clear signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence would be to track the prime number signals it might transmit if it existed.3 Like most magicicada broods, Brood II will wait exactly 17 years. Others wait 13, and both are prime numbers. If secularists discovered prime-number signals coming from outer space, they would base their proclamations of intelligent alien life as the signal’s source on the fact that mere natural processes don’t generate prime-number sequences. But for some reason, inference-making skills lapse when the same prime-number algorithms occur in creatures right at the secularists’ feet.
No, evolution is not responsible—God is. The Lord Jesus is the original mathematician. He infused His mathematical signature into the counting cicada and many other insects, too.
While some count years, other insects count steps. Ants walk at an amazing speed for such tiny feet and legs. Voluntary muscles contracting that fast is impressive enough, but researchers have discovered that ants actually count each rapid step to aid in finding their way as they search. “Essentially, when the ant leaves its nest to go foraging, it counts the steps and keeps a record of how many steps it is away from home at any given time, like a pedometer,” wrote evolutionist and biochemist Michael Gross.4
“The biggest challenge is to find out how the insects store complex geographical information in their very small brains.” Amazingly, “certain parts of the brain of insects reconfigure themselves when exposed to information related to navigation,” according to Gross.5
Evolutionist and biologist Jochen Zeil of the Australian National University at Canberra summarized his considered opinion:
I think that every animal we look at [including the ant] is a more competent, more robust, more flexible, more miniaturized and a more energy-, material-, sensor- and computation-efficient agent than anything we have ever built.6
What a great, albeit unwitting, testimony to our great Creator! Every animal is a signpost pointing to His excellence. Reconfiguring a brain when exposed to information and computational efficiency both require high-order math. Writing for Discovery News online, Jennifer Viegas reported that scientists might learn even more useful math from insects.
[Ants can] perform simple arithmetic operations with small numbers. We suggest that applying ideas of information theory and using the natural communication systems of highly social animals can open new horizons in studying numerical cognition.7
And insect math goes beyond just counting. A group of researchers recently witnessed ants solving the “towers of Hanoi” puzzle.8 The game involves transferring disks of tapering size from one of three stacks to another without placing a larger disk on top of a smaller one. For the ants, though, researchers transposed the different stacking options onto a maze of hexagons, where the shortest route to food corresponded to the best solution to the puzzle. Of course, the ants solved it. They even reworked new solutions to overcome blocked tunnels. In addition, the pioneer ants that solved the puzzles somehow explained the correct route to their relatives.
Harvester ants access another algorithm to solve a different critical problem. If the ant foragers gather too much food, they clog pathways and food storage chambers, as well as waste time and energy. If they forage too little, the ant colony starves. A balance is required, and an ant algorithm supplies it. Stored somewhere in the ant, this data-processing software governs their foraging frequency. The algorithm relates at least three critical variables: the rate of outgoing foragers, the amount that the rate increases with each returning ant, and the amount that the rate decreases with each outgoing ant. Researchers discovered that this ant algorithm closely matches the one that programmers wrote to regulate Internet traffic. The algorithm uses two formulae:9
- αn = max(αn-1-qDn-1+cAn-d,α), α0 = 0
- Dn~Poisson (αn)
Who knew ants were so smart?
Insects like cicadas and ants possess enough “genius” to impress smart scientists. Those who constantly attribute that genius to chance, time, and natural processes probably wallow in frustration, since “nature” is far from a genius. Satisfaction, not frustration, awaits those who ascribe insect math to a real live Mathematician. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth” (Colossians 1:16).
- Borenstein, S. 2013. East about to be overrun by billions of cicadas. Associated Press. Posted on hosted.ap.org May 7, 2013, accessed May 9, 2013.
- “It’s not a problem for the biblical creationist to have conceptual entities existing before human minds because human minds are not the only minds that exist in the Christian worldview. Numbers are a reflection of God’s thoughts. Numbers existed before people because God’s thoughts existed before people.” Lisle, J. 2012. Evolutionary Math? Acts & Facts. 41 (12): 11-13.
- Pomerance, C. 2004. Prime Numbers and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Mathematical Adventures for Students and Amateurs. Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Association of America.
- Gross, M. 2012. How ants find their way. Current Biology. 22 (16): R615.
- Ibid, R616.
- Ibid, R618.
- Viegas, J. 2011. Are Ants Smarter Than Fifth-Graders at Math? Discovery News. Posted on discovery.com April 11, 2011, accessed May 10, 2013.
- Reid, C. R., D. J. T. Sumpter and M. Beekman. 2011. Optimisation in a natural system: Argentine ants solve the Towers of Hanoi. Journal of Experimental Biology. 214 (1): 50-58.
- Prabhakar, B., K. N. Dektar, and D. M. Gordon. 2012. The Regulation of Ant Colony Foraging Activity without Spatial Information. PLoS Computational Biology. 8 (8): e1002670.
* Mr. Sherwin is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Creation Research and Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Sherwin F. and B. Thomas. 2013. Insect Arithmetic—Pure Genius! Acts & Facts. 42 (7): 16-17.