21 July 2007

Swarm Theory

When we visited Grenoble a few years ago, my friend Matt told me about what he called the Hive Mentality, which states that the group or colony is smarter than the individual, and that the group will work together successfully without a leader. At the time, I thought that Matt was pretty smart and the subject very intense.

Well, three years later, I still think Matt is pretty smart, and I still think that the topic is still very intense. I came across an article online at the National Geographic website about Swarm Intelligence. Swarm intelligence is based on the study of collective behavior in decentralized, self-organized systems (e.g., insects, birds, and fish). Basically the thrust of the argument is this:

“Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are." A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.”

The incredible thing about swarm intelligence is that...

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Another thing that fascinates me is how ants (or in this case, bees) arrived at decisions. In one test, they set out five boxes as potential hives for bees and watched as the scouting bees investigated the potential new nests. After bees had visited all the boxes, a decision had to be made which one would make the best nest.

The decisive moment didn't take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.

The decision making process was very simple; seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices. All this without someone with the gift of leadership.

This has brought me back to the question I’ve posted on more than once, what is “leadership” in the context of the body of Christ?

This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about the body:

18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body (1 Cor. 12v18f).

In an Ant colony, there are workers, a queen, foragers, nurses and the like. Each has a different function, yet they all function together as a colony. How much like the function of the body of Christ?

The key to swarm intelligence is that the sum of the individuals is greater than the whole. Individuals all may have a function, but it is understood in the context of the need of the whole colony.

It also appears that the interaction of the individuals in making a decision is key to the well-being of the colony.

What does this all mean? I think maybe we need to think of the body of Christ as less a bunch of people meeting together in one place and more as a colony. With all the emphasis that the writers of the New Testament put on the collective of the body of Christ, the current mindset about leadership in the church is a little thick-headed. Most of it is centered on the individual, and not on the group (or colony).

Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.

I find the part interesting about not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. As I said in an earlier post, we want a hero who will tell us what to do so that we can disengage and not have to do our part. But what if Christians tried to listen to God and did what they thought they were supposed to do, and did this is concert with other Christians who are trying to listen to God, wouldn’t we have something that looks and acts like a colony? More importantly, wouldn’t we be closer to the idea of the Body of Christ that we find in Scripture?

Anyway, one last thought from the article:

"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

I think the idea of the gifts of the Spirit is that the life and ministry of Christ is spread out among a group of people, acting responsibly, which will bring wholeness and Shalom to the colony. The focus isn’t on me, seeing prayer as a spiritual cosmic slot machine that we plug our prayers-nickels into in order to hit a spiritual jackpot.

Why do we have leaders? Probably for the same reason Moses allowed divorce.

The Colony of Christ. Hmmm.

It would make an interesting experiment.

Print this post

1 comment:

  1. One place where this concept works for humans is Alcoholics Anonymous. It also has no centralized leadership, each individual group is autonomous and each individual is free to act as he or she sees fit. The individual lives by a code, the 12 Steps. And like your post, when everyone is endeavoring to follow this code, the organism functions well, welcoming new members, supporting each other, dealing with crises. Sure it's not perfect (in fact it's kind of nuts sometimes), but I wish the church functioned with such cohesion.