Two Apes and One Anthill

Saturday, 10:09 am
A small plane approached the run-down runway of a little airport. Two brothers looked out of one of its small windows, taking in the blue of the Caribbean Sea.
“Man, I’ve really been looking forwards to this,” said Raúl, the oldest. “How long has it been?”
“Yeah. Too long,” said Fabio, the youngest, and nodded, his forehead almost rubbing against the Plexiglas.
“Four years, right? Just after your Ph. D.?”
“Yeah. Almost five now.”
“Right,” said Raúl. “I can’t believe I hadn’t seen you since then!”
“I know. That’s crazy.”
Fabio sat back. Leaning closer towards him, Raúl gazed out the window.
“Well, now we have all the more reason to celebrate,” said Raúl. “You’re the only Colombian to win this award, right?”
Fabio smiled and nodded. “Right.” He was actually the only Latin American to ever have won it, but he didn't mention it. “Thanks!”
“We’re very proud of you.” This award Fabio had received might be the most prestigious award in his field.
“It’s a pity Juan couldn’t join us.”
Raúl shrugged and nodded. “Yeah.” He turned away from the window and straightened his back, preparing for landing.
“I’m just so eager to take a break,” said Fabio. He had worked very hard on a book, many long nights, and now, after a lot of frustration, he was finally done. He really needed the break and the idea Raúl had proposed—a week in this beach, which they had visited countless times, ever since he could barely walk—had sounded perfect.
The award he had received—mainly because of some papers he had published a few years back—was certainly very impressive. However, it was his second book he was most proud of. Seven years had passed since the publication of his first book, which roughly a million students had used to learn basic logic; he hoped his second book would do the same for algebra.
“You’ve really earned it,” said Raúl. He was happy to see his brother, after so many years. He also intended to do a lot of reading this week.
The small airplane touched the ground, bounced for a split second and finally landed. It braked hard and taxied briefly to the only gate.
Sunday, 4:52 pm
Raúl was reclining by the swimming pool, reading. “Oh, hey.” He looked over his book and saw his brother carrying a bundle of things. “What are you up to?”
“I’m, uh… playing with some ants.”
“I discovered some anthill and… well, the ants are pretty cool, they seem fairly smart.”
“Yeah?” Raúl set down his book and reached out to grab his cocktail from the table. He took a sip.
“Yeah. I’ve been doing a bunch of simple games with them since yesterday and they’re doing pretty well.”
“Interesting,” said Raúl. He looked more closely at the items his brother was carrying. There was a bag with plastic figures from a board game, a big loaf of bread, and a small bag of sugar. “What type of games?”
“Well, I’m just giving them some challenges. I was relaxing yesterday and started playing with them. I thought their behavior seemed interesting and started just trying things. I didn’t expect much at first, but… these bugs seem to adapt fast, almost as if they were learning. I mean, it’s relatively simple things, but still… it’s fun.”
“That’s great,” said Raúl and took another sip of his daiquiri. Ants? Really?
“I have to contact Joseph, one of my colleagues in California. He works with insects. We’ve talked a lot about animal behaviors. I used to help him with some experiments he was running with flies and I wonder what he’ll say when he hears of this.”
Raúl nodded and set down the empty glass in the table. His book fell off to the ground. He picked it up and smacked dust out of its cover.
“I can show you the kind of challenges they have solved. I’ve taken some notes.” He took his backpack off and started pulling a zipper.
“Uh, maybe later?” said Raúl. “This book I’m reading is really interesting; I can’t wait to see what happens.”
“Uh, sure,” said Fabio. What was with his brother? A book? Seriously? “Tell you what, I’ll catch you later.”
“Yeah! Good luck with your ants!”
“Thanks! Enjoy your book,” said Fabio, making off.
Tuesday, 10:48 am
Raúl floated on his back in the swimming pool, under the shade of some palm trees. He would stand from time to time to listen to the waves breaking in the ocean nearby and to the voices of macaws, parakeets, barred ant-shrikes, and some other local birds.
Three women, slightly younger than him, talked merrily in one side of the pool. One of them ate mango from a bowl.
Raúl raised his head and saw Fabio standing over the blue tiles. “Oh, there you are.”
Raúl turned around and swam to his brother. “Still torturing ants?”
Fabio laughed. “Torturing? It’s not like that!”
Standing up in the pool, Raúl smiled. The water reached just below his shoulders. “What are you up to? I hadn’t seen you since yesterday, I was a bit worried.”
“Well, just now I was in our suite, sleeping. But, well… yeah, I’m still… interacting with the ants. Actually, it’s really remarkable what I’ve seen them do.”
“Really?” Raúl brushed wet clumps of hair backwards on his head. Fabio looked quite excited.
“Yeah! They’re pretty smart,” he said. “At first I was just giving them simple puzzles that individual ants were solving.”
“Like what?”
“I’d put them against some challenges before they could get some tasty rewards. They’d have to dodge obstacles, figure out how to bridge a chasm, stuff like that. I could show you, but it doesn’t really matter. Anyway, not only they have learned how to solve these challenges but, what’s far more remarkable, it looks like they are able to convey these lessons to the other ants in their colony! Cool, right?”
Raúl nodded, smiling. He could see Fabio was really into it.
“But when I tried to make the puzzles slightly more complex… they just failed.”
“Oh.” A small flock of macaws flew nearby.
“However,” Fabio said with a smirk, “the anthill, as a whole, is really really really smart! I was about to give up but I came up with one game that would require various ants to cooperate and in this they were much better than I thought. I wonder how they communicate; I've heard they use pheromones and their sense of smell a lot, but I really have no idea.”
“Interesting.” Raúl turned back and looked in the direction of the women on the other side of the pool and caught one of them gazing at him. He decided he would go and talk with her.
“Isn’t it?” asked Fabio. “I think it is! And you know what? I think it’s just this particular type of ants! They are these fairly small black ants, mostly harmless. I tried some of the same experiments with two other types of ants and… they didn’t achieve anything. Fuckers just kept biting me.”
“I see.”
“Actually, I’ve only been able to find one colony of this kind of ants, of the smarter ones; I’m trying to find another to see how they respond.”
Raúl came out of the swimming pool, water falling from his skin to the blue tiles. “Would you like to have a beer?” He grabbed his towel.
“Eh, sure,” said Fabio. “Well, I’ll take a smoothie; I don’t drink beer.”
“What? You don’t drink beer?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Since when?”
Fabio shrugged. “I just don’t like it.”
“Alright. Get a cocktail or something.”
“No, I just don’t like alcohol.”
Raúl looked at Fabio. This was new, wasn’t it? Fabio used to drink alcohol, didn’t he? You can’t trust people that don’t drink alcohol. Oh, well, let him have whatever he wants.
“So tell me more about your ants,” Raúl said, as they waited by the outdoors bar.
“Right. So I started thinking hard about how to scale up these games, in terms of the number of ants involved. And this is when things got really interesting! It was very hard at first, but… I found that the more ants I involved, the more challenging I could make these tasks, with the complexity growing super linearly.”
“How many ants are we talking about?”
“Well, at first it was just a few, say three or five. But I managed to scale it up, gradually. It wasn’t easy but I came up with an idea and ran a really large experiment. I managed to get up to three hundred and fifty ants, for about three hours!”
“Wow, seriously? That many? That’s pretty impressive.”
“I had to use a shit-ton of straws, sticks, tape, and thread.” Fabio laughed. “Just setting it up took me about four hours.”
Raúl nodded.
“The results were remarkable! They actually managed to solve some fairly complex problems! I wonder how many ants make up the whole colony. I suppose at least a ten thousand, but I really have no idea.”
A hotel employee came by from the kitchen. “Gentlemen, how can I help you?”
“I’ll have a beer,” said Raúl.
“Sure. You, sir?”
“I’ll take a sour-sop smoothie.”
“You bet.”
“So, anyway, when they managed to solve this challenge… that was eye opening. This was actually a pretty remarkable display of intelligence. We’re talking basic Boolean logic problems. They had to solve 3 simple tasks correctly in a row: if they didn’t, I would reset it, shake them off, have them start again.”
“At first they struggled but, after a long string of failures, all of a sudden they started just sailing through it!”
“How many ants did you kill?”
Fabio laughed. “None. Well, actually… I think a few did get crushed, unfortunately. That was in an earlier experiment, though.”
“I see.”
“Anyway, this got me wondering how far I can take them. I decided to concentrate on building a language that I can use to communicate with the colony.”
“A language?”
“Yeah. And it worked! Well, it’s very primitive and it’s painfully slow. But I can propose simple bargains to the ants, in terms of rewards for solving some basic problems. I think they actually understand them, more or less. I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off… I really had no idea ants could be this clever.”
The man from the hotel brought them their drinks.
“Cheers!” said Raúl, bringing his glass to his lips. “To your ants!”
Fabio smiled and grabbed his smoothie.
“What did your colleague in California say?”
“He hasn’t replied. I think he’s on vacation.”
“Well, in any case, this sounds really cool, Fabio. I’m glad to hear you’re having so much fun torturing your ants.”
“Well, thanks!” said Fabio and frowned slightly. He wasn’t torturing them! He drank half of his smoothie in one go. “Well, it’s getting a bit late. I’ll catch you later; I want to try something else before it gets dark.”
“Sure. Have fun!”
As Fabio left, Raúl smiled at the group of women. They didn’t respond.
Thursday, 8:37 am
Fabio entered the suite and closed the door quietly. In the kitchen, he poured himself a glass of water.
Raúl came out of his room on his pajama pants. “Fabio?”
“Oh, good morning.”
“Uh, did you just arrive?”
“Er, yeah.”
“Where were you? I was beginning to fear your ants had finally eaten you!”
Fabio laughed. “No. These ants are really something, though. You know what?” His eyes could not contain his excitement. “I taught them the concept of prime numbers!”
Raúl laughed. “What? No way!”
“Incredible, isn't it? We started with basic math concepts. We now have a system based on grains of rice and little bowls. I told you we were developing some basic language for communication, right? It was difficult at first, really slow. I wasn’t sure if they were really following, but… you know how it is, exponential growth; I think the real challenge was in bootstrapping it, once we got a few concepts established, making progress just kept becoming easier and easier.” He drank a bit of water. “So I started giving them more sophisticated math tasks. As always, they would get it wrong at first, but, eventually, they’d start succeeding and… well, I must say, they are really amazing! So I got them as far as to compute three prime numbers!”
Raúl nodded. “Seriously? That sounds amazing.”
“Yeah! I got them to compute 31, 37 and 41!”
“No way! Really?”
“Yeah! And every hour they make progress faster. I mean, it was incredibly slow at first. They managed to really understand addition just about three hours ago”, he said looking at his clock. “Now they’re able to compute prime numbers!”
“Wow, that’s really remarkable, Fabio!” Raúl said. He wondered if lack of sleep was getting to his brother. He suffered from insomnia, and that is no light affliction. Had it affected his mind? Maybe he had been under just too much pressure at his university.
“I know! But, yeah, now I’m exhausted, so I’ll go to try and sleep. I’ll continue in a few hours. I’m not entirely sure if she understood the concept of time, but I tried to tell her to wait for me.”
Raúl raised his eyebrow. “She?”
“I mean, the anthill.” Fabio finished his water and set the glass in the sink.
“Why is it a she?”
“I don’t know. I guess there’s a queen.”
“Well, this sounds really cool, but yeah, go to sleep! I’ll probably be at the beach, I intend to spend all day there, reading. Find me there and show me, okay?”
Friday, 3:15 am
Nearly two days went by. Fabio, again, entered the suite and locked the door after him.
Taking a glass of water, Fabio knocked on the door to Raúl’s room. “Raúl?”
“Oh, hey.” Raúl sat up in his bed.
“Sorry, did I wake you up?”
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” said Raúl. What did he think? Of course he woke him up. He set his feet on the floor and started looking for his pants. “How’s it going? What’s with your new friends? Learned to differentiate yet?”
“Well, we decided to… eh, to expand our language in a different direction.”
Fabio turned on the lights and noticed that there was someone else in the bed.
“Oh, you must be Fabio,” said a woman. She grabbed the blanket and pulled it to her neck.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Who was this woman?
“I’m Rosa,” she said, as if she had read his mind.
“Nice to meet you. Er, I’m sorry I woke you up,” he said. “Raúl, let’s talk tomorrow.” Fabio turned off the light and closed the door.
Half a minute later Raúl came out of his room wearing just his white linen pants. He closed the door behind him to let Rosa sleep. Fabio was in the restroom brushing his teeth.
“Hey, anteater. Where have you been? Are you okay?”
“Of course! I was with the ants.” Fabio spat toothpaste into the sink. Why wouldn’t he be okay? “And who is that woman?” He rinsed his brush in the water.
“Rosa? Just someone from Medellin.”
“Oh, okay. She seems nice.” He set the brush in the counter and they walked to the small living room.
“Yeah,” said Raúl. “Thanks.” He was now a bit concerned about his brother. “So how’s it going with your ants? You were saying something about expanding your language?”
The two men sat down in a sofa.
“Well, my goal is to be able to explain to her basic human concepts.”
“Like what?”
“Like family.”
Raúl laughed but Fabio remained serious. “How did it go?”
“Pretty good, for what can be expected. In the be-”
“Let me guess: in the beginning she didn’t understand these notions, but eventually you managed to convey them to them?”
“Exactly.” Fabio smiled. “Well, except I didn’t really manage to fully convey them, only very vaguely, I think. We have a rudimentary language where we can talk about numbers and various concepts from math. We have now 69 nouns for things like sand, water, leaves, sugar, rice, ants, humans and the like. Also for some parts of the body: eyes, mouth and legs. We can talk about time and we have 14 verbs. Er, 17. It’s pretty cool that from math, mostly from basic logic, we got a fairly expressive language. The vast majority of what our language deals with is very meta: it’s about the language itself. And, well, it has evolved a lot.”
“That’s pretty neat,” said Raúl. “What time is it?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty late. I need to get some sleep. But this is so exciting!”
Raúl nodded. “Well, yeah, it does sound awesome,” he said. “It sounds crazy good.”
“I told her I would introduce you to her tomorrow.”
“Well, I think she was trying to convey to me that she wants to interact with other people than just me. She’s aware of your existence and she’d like to meet you tomorrow.”
“Uh, okay.” Raúl scratched his knee. “Actually, yeah, that sounds great. I would love to meet this anthill of yours.” He tried to conceal his skepticism. It was time he faced the fact that his brother was losing his sanity, perhaps some obsession with seeing patterns where there were none. Communicating the concept of ‘family’ with an anthill? Yeah, right.
“Hey,” said Raúl suddenly, “what’s that in your hands!”
Fabio raised his hands, palms up. He had a small rash all over his palms and fingers. “It’s nothing.”
“What?” Raúl grabbed Fabio’s left arm by the wrist and looked at his hand closely. “Man, what the heck happened to you?”
“As I said, it’s nothing.” Fabio sighed.
Raúl looked up into his eyes and back at his palms. “Is this beca-”
“It was an initial development,” Fabio interrupted his brother. “It was, uh… it was part of our communication system. Ants would bite me in different parts of my hands. It was a bit painful at first, but… I don’t know, I guess I got used pretty quickly. Now they crawl all over my body but they don’t harm me, we don’t need that anymore.”
“Seriously?” Raúl looked at the tiny red dots incredulously. “Did you fucking bleed?”
Fabio ignored the question. “Well, it was necessary. We wouldn’t have gotten so far without that phase, I don’t think.”
“Jesuschrist,” said Raúl. “I’m not letting any of your ants bite me!”
“Don’t worry, that’s not necessary,” said Fabio coldly. “Our language has evolved far away from that.”
Raúl frowned. “This is crazy, Fabio!”
Fabio didn’t say anything.
“Does it hurt?” Raúl pressed his thumb against Fabio’s palm.
“No. It was already a few days ago.” Fabio pulled his hand away and Raúl let go reluctantly.
“Okay, uh, I’m glad. Hmm, maybe we should get you some antidote.”
Fabio said nothing.
“Where is the anthill?”
“About an hour walk by the beach. Heading towards the river.”
“How did you find it?”
“Just by chance, actually. I had gone for a short hike and was resting there. Do you remember this little cottage with a few tables that Dad loved so much?”
“Yeah. The place with the amazing mojarras?”
“Right. I was there just relaxing, reading some articles, and I started playing with two ants that were crawling on my table. Something in their behavior seemed strange and… well, you know the rest. I started teasing them and I was surprised by how smart they seemed. So I followed them to the anthill. I didn’t think much of it, it was just a game, you know? But… yeah.”
“I see,” said Raúl. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. Go get some sleep and we’re going to go together and check it out tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure. Yeah.” They stood up. Raúl opened the door to his room. Rosa had turned the light in the bedside table and was awake. She smiled at him. Her hair was a mess but Raúl thought she was beautiful.
“Raúl?” called Fabio.
“Hmm?” With one hand in the knob, Raúl turned to face Fabio.
“How hard do you think it’ll be to change my return flight? I’m going to stay here with her at least for another week.”