You scratch my back. . . baboons are masters of consensus. Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Planning a holiday? Take some advice from baboons

When planning, it often seems one person gets their way. But there is an alternative.

‘Tis the season for holiday planning. It can be a stressful time: do we visit the museums? Or the beach? It’s easy for one person – and even two, three or four people – to decide what to do. But as the group gets larger, human beings become unable to reach a consensus. The result is often that one person seems to get his or her way but it doesn’t have to be. Why? When it comes to mass planning, more is different.

More Is Different was the title of a 1972 paper by the Princeton University physicist Philip Anderson. What he meant was that individual behaviour is different to group behaviour. You can’t always understand something by taking it apart and examining the properties and proclivities of its constituent parts. That is true whether you’re talking about a collection of atoms, people, or – as Iain D Couzin is doing this month – baboons.

Couzin, also at Princeton, researches group behaviour in animals. He is in London to give a conference talk at the Science Museum. The meeting covers a swath of “emergent” group behaviours: the emergence of resistance to antibiotics, for instance. One bacterium can’t develop it but a group achieves it together. Then there is the flocking behaviour of starlings and the swarming of locusts.

Spacecrafts can also be built to show emergent behaviour. Flying in adaptable formations and following simple rules, much like flocks of birds, they can navigate obstacles and find landmarks or landing sites more efficiently. Atoms that group together in ways dictated by simple forces can also display complex emergent properties. Superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity without energy-sapping resistance, is one. Superfluidity, which allows helium atoms to defy gravity and flow up the walls of a container, is another.

It’s likely that some processes within our bodies are emergent phenomena. Couzin’s work has suggested that memory and recognition rely on co-ordinated activity between groups of neurons, raising the possibility that dementia may mark a failure of emergent phenomena in the brain. It is possible that other emergent phenomena regulate our physical health; if we can get a handle on these, they may open the door to new treatments.

But the promise that comes from studying emergent properties is not just medical or technological – it is also societal. Watching the behaviour of primates, aware of their lack of language, we usually imagine one individual dictating to the group. Couzin’s most recent research suggests we couldn’t be more wrong. In a paper published in the journal Science last month, Couzin and his co-workers showed that baboons won’t follow a despotic leader.

Like people, baboons live in groups with close but complex social bonds. Individuals have varying skills and different levels of dominance – some are alphas, some decidedly not. Yet when it comes to important decisions about the future, everyone has an equal voice, if they choose to use it. When a call has to be made about, say, where to look for food or water, many offer suggestions. If a proportion of their proposed paths align closely enough, a solution emerges. Couzin’s team showed that the direction taken is a compromise: the average of the closely aligning suggestions.

It’s an enticing prospect. Remember, evolution is the master of stumbling upon optimal solutions. If you’re fed up with despotic holiday planners, band together and be more baboon. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.