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The Smart Swarm

The Smart Swarm

Peter Miller

Avery, 336 pp., $27

The Smart SwarmThe central problem of humanity, it has been said, is that we're social animals who also have a strong self-interest as individuals. This tension has led us at times (okay, often) to foul our collective nest for short-term enrichment. Wouldn't it be better if we could channel our sociability to solve complex environmental problems -- if, in short, we thought more like honeybees? Peter Miller thinks so, which is why he has written The Smart Swarm.

Miller, an editor at National Geographic, was fascinated by the emerging science of "collective behavior," an interdisciplinary way of looking at species that live and work in groups, including bees, red harvester ants, stickleback fish, and starlings. Biologists, social scientists, psychologists, and business consultants have found in these animals some intriguing lessons about group think; group grope (including the dark side of groups when stressed, such as cannibalism); and, most important, group survival.

What can an ant or a bee teach us? Plenty, according to Miller. Individual red harvester ants, as a rule, are not particularly bright. But a colony of ants, itself a "superorganism," is a work of genius. Day after day, it can find the shortest distance to good food, repair its shelter, and launch invasions worthy of Constantine. When scientists tried to figure out how, they realized there was no chieftain, no central authority, just 140 million years of evolved communication. Each ant has a small job. It holds no awareness of a bigger picture or of anyone else's job. It simply takes its orders from pheromones, chemical signals left by other ants. For example, when a "forager" ant finds nearby food, it will scurry back to the colony, leaving a scent trail behind. The trail of the ant that traveled back and forth the quickest is twice as strong as that of the other foragers, which haven't yet doubled back. So more ants follow its route, and the scent gets amplified exponentially. Pretty clever.

Honeybees spend a great deal of time and energy finding a new hive every spring, usually in a south-facing tree cavity. How do they agree on the perfect spot? They send out real estate scouts, which report back to the group. Depending on its enthusiasm, each scout performs either a lackluster or a knock-'em-dead "waggle dance" that indicates the exact coordinates of its spot. Essentially, the bees "vote" on the best dancers and then make their move.

Miller articulates several principles guiding group success in an unpredictable environment: self-organization (the ability to form patterns), decentralized problem solving (no one in charge), and reliance on real-time local knowledge. "It is from this controlled messiness that the wisdom of the hive emerges," he writes. To show us how humans can best tap swarm IQ, Miller takes us inside a reorganization at Boeing to help manage a complex test-flight schedule, the rerouting of a delivery system at a gas company for greater efficiency, and a town hall meeting in Vermont (yes, democracy at its best before the term "town hall" was tarnished by protests over health care), among other examples. Bigger, diverse groups almost always make smarter decisions than smaller ones, he argues. Micro adjustments in strategy fed by on-the-ground data can yield big results.

Unfortunately, Miller is overly enamored of business models and business speak, and the book has some puzzling omissions. The Internet is a place already encoded with insect metaphors (it's a web, after all), and yet he mentions Google only briefly as an example of group work (because of its crowd-sourced algorithms). He spends more time on democratic, self-correcting Wikipedia, but virtually none on Twitter, with its uncanny, decentralized ability to outmaneuver traditional authorities in times of chaos (witness last year's protests in Iran).

Funnily, this book is the opposite of what it describes: the pieces are richer than the whole. Beyond showing us some interesting examples from the corporate world, Miller doesn't really provide a blueprint for tweaking human behavior. Swarm mentality may be useful at times, but it doesn't come naturally to us. We are primates, not termites, and, for better or worse, we will always have a fondness for hierarchy, acquisition, and display. Still, Miller's got a point we'd do well to heed as we face a rapidly changing environment and economy: we can be more brilliant, more creative, and more just when we put our heads together.

image of Florence Williams
Florence Williams writes about health and the environment from her home in Washington, D.C. Her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History won the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science & Technology and was named a Notable Book of 2012 by th... READ MORE >