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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.