A Lesson from Snorkeling: The Intelligence of the Swarm

Under Water - Champion Islet, Galapagos

Under Water – Champion Islet, Galapagos

The waters surrounding Champion Islet, a small rocky outcrop off the coast of Floreana Island, are clear – crystal clear – and provide one of the best drift-snorkel spots in the Galapagos. And on January 2, 2014 we were there, drifting – floating with schools of colorful fish – past steep underwater volcanic walls. It takes us no effort, “current power” provides our motoring. Our only challenge is to hold an underwater camera still enough to capture the beauty Mother Nature has provided us.

At first, we’re overwhelmed by the swirls of fish, which pass by us like splashes of color that could only make sense to a Jackson Pollock. But as we settle into our float, and follow the beauty of the swirls through the eye of our camera, their harmony becomes more apparent. The collective movements of the swirls are performed with the coordination and gusto the London Symphony Orchestra would use when playing Anton Rubinstein’s Oceans.

In its February 2014 article, Mind Meld: The genius of swarm thinking, New Scientist Magazine gives us some insight into what its researchers call “swarm thinking,” the mystic choreography of the swirls of the tropical fish who had become our snorkeling companions.

What the research led by Iain Couzin, Princeton University, indicates is that there is a form of group – swarm – intelligence that generates a higher level of complex behavior than the individual members of the group are able to perform on their own. Author Michael Brooks writes:

“Researchers are starting to see swarms as living entities with senses, motivation and evolved behavior. … [The studies have] implications for all sorts of collective action. … [P]rocessing power of the swarm is more than the sum of its parts. Applying this concept to other complex systems provides insight into all sorts of areas, from fighting disease to building robot swarms. It might even provide a way of thinking about the human brain.”

Galapagos Fish Swarm

Galapagos Fish Swarm

The movement of fish, birds and other animals in swarms is not simply a matter of physics; swarms function like biological organisms responding to sensory information. The swarms are not purely democratic in their concerted actions; there are leader and follower relationships shaping what happens. For example, herring occupy different positions within their swarm depending upon their reproductive state.

In his article, Brooks goes on to describe the influence of Couzin‘s research on such things as robotics and roving sensors, each only dealing with a small sample of information but collectively generating an intelligent composite far outstripping the capability of any one robot. Testing human cells involved in wound healing indicate that they, too, act as a swarm when taking on an injury or disease. The researchers are also beginning to see the 86 billion neurons in a human brain as achieving the brain’s results by swarming – clearly the complex intelligence provided by our collective neurons exceeds the capacities of individual neurons.

But as we think about the helpful uses of the intelligence of the swarm, we should reflect on the swarm’s other aspects. American Indians learned to use the actions of the buffalo swarm to drive them over cliffs. Fisherman around the world have learned to fill their nets with fish swarms.

And the misuse of “Groupthink,” “Wisdom of the Crowds,” “Group intelligence,” or “Collective Intelligence” by some humans on themselves and on other humans provides warnings for all of us. I wrote about “Groupthink” – the group-drive for consensus that causes a deterioration of individual mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment – in Crash Landing -Surviving a Business Crisis. President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and President Bush’s Middle East Desert wars are political examples. Google the web and you will find many more swarm-type black holes, from marketing and advertising strategies zeroing in on your swarm preferences to religion and political pontifications.

Yes, drifting works just fine when we’re snorkeling at Champion Islet.

Yes, the wisdom of the crowd – the swarm – is very useful.

But buying blindly into swarm wisdom without exercising critical judgment can drive us like buffaloes over a deadly cliff. Particularly when the swarm’s deeply-held beliefs that shape our actions deny factual reality.

The National Science Foundation recently published a study of what Americans think about science, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding. The study is worth reading. Pseudo-scientific beliefs are far too prevalent. Our knowledge and acceptance of well-established scientific facts are lacking.

For example, 25% of Americans still believe the sun rotates around the earth, a religious-swarm belief that drove the Vatican to place Galileo under house arrest centuries ago. [The Vatican recanted a few years ago; but the Flat Earth Society remains a viable entity.] This is but one of many surprising revelations in the study.

It’s fun to drift with the undulations of a gentle current, as we did at Champion Islet.

But our swarms – the groups we cherish – need more than drift from each of us.

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1 Comment on "A Lesson from Snorkeling: The Intelligence of the Swarm"

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Well done, as usual. You are not only a superb photographer, but an excellent writer. Thanks for sharing.