Bees and Democracy

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I have been reading a fascinating article in the March 2012 Smithsonian Magazine called “Hive Mind” by Carl Zimmer. The article describes the work of Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley, an expert in honeybees, swarm intelligence, and collective decision making.

The decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds and colonies of termites display it as well.

Seeley and his colleagues have discovered a few principles honeybees use to make smart decisions:

  1. Enthusiasm: passion in the bee communications dance
  2. Flexibility: decaying number of dance repetitions is tied to the value of what the dance is communicating
  3. Quorum: silencing lower value dance communications as the number of higher value dancers rises to a decision threshold

Seeley draws comparisons between how a honeybee hive makes decisions and how both the human brain and a democracy work:

Both swarms and brains make their decisions democratically. Despite her royal title, a honeybee queen does not make decisions for the hive. The hive makes decisions for her. In our brain, no single neuron takes in all the information from our senses and makes a decision. Millions make a collective choice. …Groups work well, he argues, if the power of leaders is minimized. A group of people can propose many different ideas – the more the better, in fact. But these ideas will only lead to a good decision if listeners take time to judge their merits for themselves… Groups also do well if they’re flexible, ensuring that good ideas don’t lose out simply because they come late in the discussion.

Just because animals do something does not mean it is also appropriate for people. Nonetheless, comparing human systems to patterns in nature presents both in an interesting context.

Image Copyright 2009 by Katy Dickinson

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