Swarm Intelligence, Emergent Behavior

A curious quirk of contemporary discourse is the resolute refusal to reason about ourselves in the same way we reason about other animals, despite the fact that humans are – for all practical purposes – highly advanced animals.

Natural scientists have spent many years documenting the mechanics of swarms in various animal species:

  • Bird flocking appears to require an extreme level of coordination, but in practice it is simply an outcome of individual birds following a few very simple rules for motion. Schooling fish move in a similar way. This is considered an emergent behavior – an accidental collective behavior that is not conscious or deliberate on behalf of individuals.
  • Foraging ants tend to go off in completely random directions, but leave invisible chemical trails (pheromones) that are further reinforced when food is detected/transported. This can be thought of as swarm intelligence – creatures without much individual intelligence solving complex problems by each solving a tiny part of that problem, using some form of communication and social organization to ensure a reasonable division of labor.

You’ll never hear humans described in terms of emergent behavior or swarm intelligence (well, almost never), despite the fact that all of our individual brains could be described as exactly this type of system: 100 billion neurons each without any real smarts of its own, all firing according to simple rules to create the impression of “intelligence”. It is as if the idea of a swarm is somehow beneath us as a species, or perhaps an honest and in-depth study would reveal some unpleasant truths about the so-called “wisdom of crowds”.

My guess as to why this topic doesn’t come up much in human biology: the results would be hard to understand. Flocking and foraging are complex behaviors for birds and ants, but still appear simplistic to our massively-evolved human brains. However, a human swarm intelligence necessarily implies something much more intelligent than any individual human, and we can’t understand higher intelligence.

Emergent behaviors among groups of humans surely exist, and yet we struggle to see the pattern. We only seem to become aware of their existence through the proxy of easy-to-measure collective outcomes: income, crime, voting, health. As per today’s fashion, we paper over these inexplicable collective differences as being rooted entirely in geography or family history. Some of that is probably true; we adapt to our environment, and epigenetics can transfer some adaptations to descendants. Clearly the equation is more complex, given that these conditions persist after decades of deliberate screwing with the geographical and socioeconomic equation.

It’s also become fashionable to describe ideologies (including religion) as a kind of “mind virus” that infects individuals and spreads to entire groups and societies, more popularly described by the term memetics. However, given what we know of swarm intelligence and emergent behavior, we should consider the alternative: perhaps these fashionable thinkers are reversing cause and effect.

Perhaps ideas, memes, and culture are not independent entities, even in the abstract. Perhaps these constructs are simply the outcome of certain groups under certain conditions. Perhaps these transcendent properties are simply the emergent behavior of groups. Perhaps memes do not transmit culture, but are simply an expression of culture. Perhaps the Great Meme War is just real-life emergent gameplay.

I’m not going to set out to prove my hypothesis. I don’t have a massive research team or several years to conduct experiments. Should you choose to consider it, however, the hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power. It enables us to make useful distinctions between individual behavior and group behavior. There may even be some mathematical law that predicts a likelihood of certain behaviors emerging based on the number of members of a particular group, with additional second-order effects from extremely large groups.

There could be consequences for social groups and working groups, in terms of both their total size and their distribution. It might demonstrate some unintended negative consequences for dense urban development, immigration, diversity programs, and even social media organization.

Hm… probably best not to investigate, then. We can’t afford to have unpleasant facts disturbing the order imposed by our new state religion.

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