Similar patterns of interaction, such as network motifs and feedback loops, are used in many natural collective processes, probably because they have evolved independently under similar pressures. Here I consider how three environmental constraints may shape the evolution of collective behavior: the patchiness of resources, the operating costs of maintaining the interaction network that produces collective behavior, and the threat of rupture of the network. The ants are a large and successful taxon that have evolved in very diverse environments. Examples from ants provide a starting point for examining more generally the fit between the particular pattern of interaction that regulates the activity, and the environment in which it functions. Ecological constraints—such as heterogeneity in time and space, operating costs, and the threat of rupture—may shape the processes used to regulate activity in many biological systems. Both theoretical and empirical work are needed to investigate this fit, and to move toward a general understanding of the evolution of collective behavior. An ecological perspective can bring together current work in the investigation of diverse complex systems. What an ant does generates and depends on, the way its colony deals with the world. This is true of many other biological systems; to understand the action of any part, we need to look at what is going on around it.
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