SC3: Animal Sociality: Finding the Me in Team


In keeping with this year’s theme – Me, Myself and I – we will consider what “me” means in the context of animal societies. In this lecture series, Jennifer (social insect biologist and amateur philosopher) and Ted (crossover engineer and social insect collective behavior addict) will go about answering this question, in the contexts of animal social organization and collective behavior. We will explore the application of social complexity to diverse animal societies, from the social carnivores and primates to the social insects. In vertebrate social groups, such as primates and social canids, social individuals tend to be complex but the group functions as a relatively simple social system. In contrast, within the highly eusocial colonies of the social insects, the “me” is fully integrated into the concept of team. Comparisons of the different types of animal social groups therefore allow us to ask when-if-how group-level identity and goals extend beyond individual identity and goals to create something new: the social group as an individual. We will focus on the social insects to discuss the ways in which individual behavioral rules integrate into collective function – how group members coordinate within a distributed system.
Ted will lead us also into discussions of what these biological systems can or cannot tell us about how to better engineer complexity in artificial systems. We will consider how social insects have been used as models for design implementation, or for building artificial social systems, and how they have been misinterpreted in models (and in movies). The use of social insect models for artificial systems presents a design dilemma, because an ant colony has no external controller. Are we willing or able to design similar systems in which we give up hierarchical control and allow the system to gain selfhood?
Throughout the course, we can consider the question of where it appears that people think selfhood is present, and thus how it is implemented. We hope to touch on a variety of discussion points, such as:

When does a group become a “self”, and how can you identify when it has achieved selfhood?
Why do societies of some taxonomic groups achieve selfhood, while others do not?
Can an organism be viewed as a kind of social group, or is it something qualitatively different?
What are the building blocks of selfhood in artificial systems?
Where is the self in self-organization?
What happens when we embed individual selves into an artificial group?
Is the group as self about the parts being glued together, or is it more about the glue?


The course objectives are:
To gain an understanding of the diversity of socially living organisms, and the ways in which they are social.
To use this information in exploring the questions of “where is the me in team?”
To gain insights into how the biological organization of social groups informs the development of models for artificial systems.


B. Hoelldobler and E.O. Wilson (2009) The Superorganism. Norton Press
S. Camazine et al. (2001) Self-organization in Biological Systems. Princeton U. Press

Course location

Hörsaal 4

Course requirements


Instructor information.

Jennifer Fewell


Dr. Jennifer Fewell is a President’s Professor at Arizona State University, where she serves as Faculty Leader for the Organismal, Integrative and Systems Biology Faculty in the School of Life Sciences. She is a Fellow, and currently President Elect, of the Animal Behavior Society, and was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2016 Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (but still cannot speak much German). Jennifer’s research focuses on the organization and evolution of insect social groups, primarily in the ants and honey bees. She is interested in the evolution of cooperative sociality, particularly at the transition from solitary to social living. She also studies the scaling of work organization, division of labor, and metabolism in eusocial insect colonies; these groups are considered an exemplar of the group as individual.


Ted Pavlic


Dr. Ted Pavlic has an interdisciplinary background, with a PhD in electrical and computer engineering, and research appointments in computer science and life sciences. He holds a joint appointment as Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainability and the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. His research focuses on understanding adaptive decision-making strategies in autonomous systems. To this end, his laboratory does empirical work with natural systems, such as social-insect colonies, and engineering work building decision-making algorithms for artificial systems, such as decentralized energy management systems for the built environment. Dr. Pavlic is the Associate Director of Research for The Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. He is also active in several professional organizations and publication venues across engineering and life sciences.