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Can science help us reshape a flawed culture? Can it help us achieve the societal changes many of us are striving for in a post-George Floyd world? Can science help us become more aware of our privilege as members of a dominant/majority demographic that knowingly and unknowingly discriminates against those who aren’t members? And can it help us make society equitable and inclusive for all?
Because I focus on bringing diverse groups together, I’ve been delving into an emerging field of study – the science of collectives. And what I’m learning has convinced me that we can craft better methodologies and programs to help people change if those methodologies and programs are informed by this science. This is part two of a series I’m writing about some of the amazing discoveries in this interesting and important field:
Slime Cells, Forests, and Creatures – the Biology of Community
There is a growing interest in the scientific community in the science of collectives. Except for the field of human sociology, science has long been focused on dissecting the anatomy and understanding the behavior of individual organisms. There seemed to be a tacit assumption that defining the individual also defines the collective. But in the last several decades, science has made numerous discoveries showing that there are different physical laws at play when it comes to the behavior of collectives. And for organisms, discoveries are pointing to a biological source for collective behavior.
It seems logical to assume that a better understanding of the biological forces at work in collectives across the spectrum of living organisms will help us better understand our own collective behavior and give us new insight into changing it for the better.
According to Antonio Damasio, the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, in his book, The Strange Order of Things – Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, within the last several decades socio-biology and evolutionary psychology “have made a case not only for a biological perspective on the cultural mind but for the biological transmission of cultural related traits,” and that “several important aspects of human cultural responses were foreshadowed in the behaviors of living organisms that are simpler than we are.” He goes on to say:
The formulation I propose to address the biological roots of the human cultural mind specifies that homeostasis1 has been responsible for the emergence of behavioral strategies and devices capable of ensuring life maintenance and flourishing, in simple as well as complex organisms, humans included.
We will look briefly at some of the recent biological discoveries that shed light on the interplay between the individual and the collective – for single celled organisms, for trees, and for animals – and consider how these discoveries might apply to humans.
I was stranded at the train station a few months ago, waiting for a late train to take me back home. I did what you do in moments like that and pulled out my cell phone in an attempt to salvage some of the lost time. I can’t remember whether it was an Internet search or a random social media headline, but I tapped the headline and suddenly my intellect was on fire and I was absorbing an article entitled, Scientists discover the molecular heart of collective behavior, on the Princeton University website.
The article was about some of the work of Thomas Gregor, a biophysicist at Princeton, who studies collective behavior at the cellular level. I had been thinking for some time about how the behavior of bacteria colonies seemed so analogous to human behavior, so the title really jumped out at me.
In research of the science of collectives, Gregor points out that scientists need to understand not just how cooperative properties exhibited by groups differ from single cell characteristics but also how actions within single cells generate communal behavior. What is it that single cells are doing to find one another and to collectivize?
He goes on to add, “To address this problem, there is a critical need to simultaneously observe the behaviors of individual cells, the behavior of the population as a whole, and to measure the relevant signaling interactions.”
The relevant signaling interactions. It’s not enough to separately observe individuals and groups, but both must be observed simultaneously so we can figure out what’s going on between them. Gregor has done brilliant work to develop methodologies to observe these interactions at the cellular level, AND TO QUANTIFY THEM!
In their studies of Dictyoselium, a slime mold, they discovered a chemical that played a key role in the signaling process:
When the amount of the chemical surrounding an individual cell reaches a certain critical level, the scientists found, the cell starts to pulse rhythmically, firing off more chemicals into the surrounding area that prompt other cells to pulse, an effect that cascades through the population. Ultimately, the cells grow in sync with each other and eventually move together as a massive group.
He has captured the pulsing and coalescing in this 26 second video. Watch what happens just after the 15 second point. Absolutely fascinating!
Collective behavior can arise in cells that initially may not be moving at all, but are prodded into action by an external agent, in this case the chemical, cyclic adenosine monophosphate, or cAMP. The discovery of an external agent as the energizing force for collectivizing is key as we ponder scaling this idea up to the multi-celled organism level. I can’t help but think of the external agents of religion or politics at work at the human level.
Trees and Forests
Which brings us to our next stop: trees and forests. Slime mold cells start to pulse and sync up in the presence of a critical amount of the chemical cAMP. Do trees do something similar on a multicellular level? Why do they congregate in forests and is there interaction between individual trees?
According to research conducted by ecologist, Suzanne Simard, trees actually do talk to each other, using a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil. Simard is a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia and the author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
The synergistic relationship between the roots of individual trees and soil fungi, whereby each exchanges nutrients essential for survival, is a well-known one. But just like Thomas Gregor and the slime mold cells, Simard was interested in the signaling interactions between individual trees. She wanted to know what triggered the interactions, how they took place, and how they affected the forest collectively.
Fundamental to the interactions between trees within a forest is the below-ground network connectivity between all the root systems – created by the mycelium, or threads, of the soil fungi. In the same way that human minds are connected via the internet, or that organs and systems of an organism are inter-connected via a neural network, the trees of a forest are connected by a fantastically complex network system within the soil.
By tracking the ebbs and flows of nutrients between networked trees, Simard has observed the signaling mechanism between trees and even made strides in identifying some of the stimuli for these exchanges. For example, in a natural forest of British Columbia, paper birch and Douglas fir were observed cooperating with each other by sending nutrients and carbon back and forth seasonally, depending on which species had the greater need. In the late summer time, as the fir began experiencing shading before the birch began losing its leaves, excess carbon from the birch went to the fir. Then later in the fall, the net transfer was reversed when the birch was losing its leaves but the fir was still photosynthesizing.
Using DNA analysis of both trees and fungi, Simard was able to create a network map of a small patch of Douglas fir forest showing that all of the trees, with a few isolated exceptions, were indeed linked together. Using that map, she has been able to establish kinship recognition between a “mother” tree and its offspring, and that these mother trees are even able to nurture their own kin.
In another experiment, Simard tracked interaction between Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. When she injured the Douglas fir, she found that, not only did they dump their carbon for the ponderosa pine to take up, they also sent a defense signal such that the defense enzymes of the ponderosa pines were up-regulated.
This fascinating research only scratches the surface of understanding the collective behavior of trees and reveals elements of what we would call social interaction. Kinship connections are maintained, offspring are nurtured, and there is cross-species cooperation.
When it comes to creatures, everyone has seen collective behavior; whether an ant colony busily marching along, a swarm of bees stirred into action by a threat to their hive, a flock of Canada geese maintaining their aerodynamically efficient V shape as they migrate hundreds of miles north or south, or maybe even a stampeding herd of elephants thundering across the savanna. But perhaps the most eye-catching is the pulsating, shape-shifting, mesmerizing murmuration of starlings.
By virtue of the size of the birds and the speed of their movements, we are able to visually and mentally process the movements of both the individual and the collective simultaneously. And this plays tricks on our minds. Is this swarm a collective of independent organisms or is it an organism itself?
The answer is, yes. Even though a swarm doesn’t have a physical heart or a brain, it clearly moves about as an entity in its own right. Can we decode these movements and gain a better understanding of human collective behavior?
For swarms of all kinds – insects, birds, fish, humans, and even automobiles, understanding their behavior is remarkably simplistic. It boils down to only three parameters:
- My position relative to my neighbors
a. Am I too far away?
b. Am I too close?
- My alignment relative to my neighbors. Am I going in the same direction?
- How many neighbors do I compare myself to?
To put this on a human level, imagine yourself at an open air concert with 30,000 other humans on an athletic field. You have a great time moving and grooving to the music, and when the concert is over everyone begins making their way to the exits. Using drones focused on groups of about 100, we would observe the following:
- Individuals would maintain an average distance between themselves within a certain tolerance. If people got too far away from their neighbors they would speed up and close the distance; if they got too close they would slow down and let some space open up.
- People would follow the direction of those in front of them within a certain tolerance.
- Individuals would make adjustments in their position and direction based on a small number of their neighbors to keep themselves optimally spaced on all sides.
People aren’t taking actual measurements or even consciously thinking about it, yet somehow the mind of each individual is constantly taking unconscious measurements and directing the body to speed up, slow down, or change direction.
The mesmerizing shapes produced by huge flocks of starlings are created in exactly this manner, astoundingly simple as it seems. Each of the thousands of birds in the flock simply monitors its position and direction relative to a few neighbors as it flies. And in this way, very simplistic individual behavior produces profoundly interesting collective behavior.
It’s quite simple to produce computer simulations of swarms using these simple parameters. In fact, Hollywood computer graphics artists have jumped on this and use it to create hordes of soldiers and swarms of frightening creatures. I’m remembering the seemingly endless horde of orcs surging forward on Helm’s Deep in the Lord of the Rings.
Scientists, on the other hand, use computer simulations to validate their model and quantify the values of the parameters for various swarming species. Mario Pesendorfer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna says,
Depending on how you change those three parameters, you can get everything from those barrel-looking baseballs that you get in ocean fish, to loose-looking insect swarms, to highly, highly organized fish swarms and murmurations. All in those three little parameters.
Scientists aren’t sure what drives the starlings to collectivize and behave like this, but believe that evolutionary programming is at work to help protect them from predators and perhaps to increase chances of finding food.
But the keyword is evolutionary programming. And it makes me wonder, since humans behave in this quantifiably similar manner, can we better understand our own biological/evolutionary programming around collectivization and find ways to change it for the better?
That’s it for this time. My next installment will take us a little deeper down the rabbit hole of understanding collective behavior. Further even than I myself had imagined. While doing research for this piece I discovered another level of collectivization, perhaps even more fundamental than biology. We’ll be looking at the physics of collectivization. Even simple physical particles are drawn to collectivize and behave differently in their groups than as individuals. I’m very excited to learn more about it! See you next time!
URLs for Referenced Articles
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