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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Slowly but surely, the patriotism question is making its way into Labour

John Denham observes a strange but happy outbreak at Labour party conference.

It’s a measure of Labour’s distress that it managed to settle the leadership while resolving so few of the challenges it faces. Over the past two years, the party’s electoral base has been torn apart by identity politics. Huge numbers of Scottish Labour voters abandoned party loyalty to vote for separation and then to dump the party itself. In England, voters feared SNP support for a minority Labour government; many others turned to Ukip. In the final blow, millions of former Labour voters, particularly those who felt mostly sharply English, backed Brexit. Many of the party’s MPs wonder how many will ever be coming back.

Faced with this tsunami of political rejection, the issue was simply airbrushed out of the leadership campaigns. Over four months neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Owen Smith even acknowledged, let alone addressed, the potent power of identity. Both cleaved to the belief that the complex weave of hope, fear, powerlessness, aspiration, community and security that are bound up in our sense of ‘who we are’ could all be stilled by the promise of ‘anti-austerity’.

One of the left’s less appealing habits is believing that it understands what voters really want better than voters do themselves. (You tell me you are worried about how quickly migration is changing your community, I tell you’re really worried about spending cuts).  Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that “we are not concerned about numbers” is probably enough to lose Labour the 2020 election on its own. No comprise here with voters on the issue that has dominated public concern for 15 years. To be fair, Owen Smith never offered a radically different perspective. It was never part of the debate.

Yet reality has a fortunate habit of intruding into the debate. In early, sometimes stumbling ways, identity politics is beginning to concern people right across the party. At Liverpool, most of the think-tanks held meetings addressing national identity in England, Scotland and the Union. Most attracted healthy audiences who, by and large, did not think identity was the property of the far right. (Declaration of interest: I was a speaker at some of these). Policy Network, IPPR, LabourList and the Fabians were amongst those taking the debate forward. Much of the New Statesman’s “New Times” edition is preoccupied with the same issues. Newer organisations from different parts of the party are engaging. The Red Shift group of Liam Byrne, Shabana Mahmood and Nic Dakin called for an explicitly English Socialism. Veteran Brexiteer John Mills, is supporting a new Labour Future organisation. Both are exploring how radical national policy and national identity fit together.

More surprising was the overt insertion of patriotic themes into the speeches of Corbyn’s front bench and the leadership itself. Military service sits as easily with the socialism of Clive Lewis as it does with Dan Jarvis. Rebecca Long-Bailey told the conference  Patriotism is not just about waving a flag during the World Cup. It is a real, life-long commitment to the people around you….When you pay your taxes, you are investing in the British people..This commitment to British people should be woven into every aspect of the British economy,

This is a potentially powerful and unifying theme for Labour. National identity and patriotism may still be a minority interest, yet it attracts people from all the party’s wings.  Tristram Hunt, Lisa Nandy, Owen Jones and some of Corbyn’s key supporters are all engaged.

These are early days. National identity was hardly the dominant issue of the conference, let alone Momentum’s parallel event. Too often the tone is narrow and defensive, as though people on the left don’t have identities but we need to understand those who do. There’s a temptation to believe that Labour simply needs some St George flags to unveil on council estates and put away elsewhere. At its best, progressive patriotism can uniting disparate interests and communities. It opens up conversations with people who would reject a political label. It can be a foundation for holding the powerful to account.

In his speech, John McDonnell praised Christians on the Left for promoting the hashtag “patriots pay their taxes”; a message that was reinforced in Corbyn’s own speech: “there is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes”.  As Hillary Clinton exposed this week, patriotism can separate those who accept their obligations to a wider society, and those who think it is clever to avoid them. In English radical history, the notion of the common weal held that the measure of the powerful was how well they looked after the commons. It has a powerful resonance today and Labour needs to mine it more.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University