Studies of chimeras and in vivo development demonstrate that cell lineages are often quite variable, apparently in response to chance perturbations. This points to an apparent contradiction: although individual cells are the units of genetic information and differentiation, not all cellular events need be precise for the development of functional organisms. The social organization of ants can serve as a metaphor that helps understand the mechanisms that underlie such development. Ants suggest that continued cellular interactions and environmental conditions could specify the proportion and general location of specialized units. Leaf venation is used as a concrete example of this general principle. A signal produced continuously by all cells specifies a requirement for vein differentiation. The cells that respond by differentiation then transport the signal away from the leaf; this removal acting as a feedback indicating that the requirement is being met. Because transport increases during vein differentiation, early initiation occurs in excess and vein ‘competition’ for the signal assures an acceptable outcome. Such specification would be robust since it does not depend on events in any single cell, and chance events, rather than being corrected or reversed, may be built upon in reaching an expected, collective phenotype. The absence of detailed information preceding development distinguishes this hypothesis from the common alternatives of a program or blueprint. Collective specification would have important implications for developmental plasticity and evolution. BioEssays 25:897–903, 2003. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.