Well, okay then, let’s give the Red Harvester Ant a special position regarding ‘collective’ — although the colony is a collective. There are a number of other Ant species where that would equally apply.
The comparison though was intended to look at the Human collective in a similar fashion one would look at any other collective among relatives in the Fauna.
“How does a human collective manage a problem when the complexity of the problem makes it incomprehensible to an individual human?”
The answer I would give is, that each individual Human Being can only act/behave according to their (cognitive) abilities. The Collective though does not require the individual to understand how it operates/functions. The Ant doesn’t need to know what its function is in the collective — it is simply part of it. While that might reduce the individual Human Being for whom it is incomprehensible in what way it relates to the whole, to a state much more like an Ant, or other members of a collective, it still cannot exclude that there are people that are able to combine an ear, a trunk and a leg into a whole being in their mind.
The Elephant story is one of my favorite ones and was part of a collection about Sufism, that I cared to study decades ago. It exemplified the potential for incomprehensibility on behalf of the King, but did not elaborate on the kind of King that could exist, being capable and wise enough to get ‘the message’.
And, yes, while the individual might never figure out what its function in the collective is, the collective keeps existing. Humans are by default part of their collective — some are aware of it, others not. But I do count different Human cultures as equivalent to the variance between Ant species, without forming a differing variety.
The Universal ‘mechanisms’ pertaining any collective and its constitution might be studied, but I doubt that there will ever be an answer. The collective as being more than the sum of its particles just is and follows principles essential for its continuation.
Maybe I should have stated the above quoted metaphor differently, but You responded and that shows that it inspired Your response. On this side of the screen, as a Human Being, You are in the same boat and it is not possible not to be in that boat, neither active, nor passive. A Red Harvester Ant cannot not be a Red Harvester Ant — no matter what its function in the collective is.
It is yet to be observed what happens when the Human Queen dies. What will the collective called ‘Kingdom’ do? Will it equally seize to exist? ;-)