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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.