Start Here: Seeing the Swarm

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Mark Twain

It’s annoying to be speeding down a highway only to be stuck in a jam, but it’s even more annoying when, after some time, the jam clears, yet there’s nothing to see that may have caused the jam—no accident, no stalled car, no merging lane choked with cars trying to get on to highway. What happened?

Some obvious things cause traffic, but more subtle things can, too—even something as small as someone braking just a little too sharply. Any slowdown on a highway full of fast-moving cars might trigger a jam of slow-moving cars. Cars entering the jam will slow down. Cars exiting it will speed up. So the jam’s front erodes while its rear builds. But while a driver on reaching its front can speed up, the driver right behind won’t speed up as fast—to avoid collision. So even after a triggering event clears up, the jam might persist.

A jam might even move backward down the road, if it engulfs more fast cars at its rear than it poops out slow cars at its front. So on hitting a jam, its triggering event might have happened miles ahead and hours before. Various cars will enter and leave it, but it might persist for hours. To a physicist, it’s like a shock wave, a ripple effect traveling back down the highway. To a brain scientist, it’s like a memory of the original event.

Much more complicated group actions are possible, too. Take termites. Some of their species build intricate nests that support millions of termites, and without those, they die. Yet they don’t build a nest because their queen plans it all out then tells them what to do. Nobody is in charge, and nobody plans what they do, yet their actions still fit together into a network essential to their survival. Like a traffic jam, a termite colony persists, even though various termites might enter and leave it (by being born into, then dying within, it)—except that instead of persisting for hours it might persist for decades. It, too, is like a ripple effect—but traveling down through time instead of across space.

To a biologist, both jams of cars and colonies of termites might seem at least a little bit like living things. In a way, both can be born and both can die, and, in a sense, both can persist for a while regardless of what their parts might think—or even whether they think at all. An economist might see similar sorts of part-whole behaviors in the structure, growth, and decay of financial systems and cities.

A traffic jam is a little like a simple cell that lives on roads. A termite colony, too, is like a cell. However it doesn’t persist merely by happenstance. It organizes its parts, and builds things to help itself persist, and by doing so it acts to persist itself. It’s organized, but with no one in charge, it’s self-organizing. Millions of termites work together to ensure their joint survival, yet no termite has to foresee, intend, plan, lead, control, or even be aware of any of that.

Order can emerge without an order-giver. Whether it’s cars or termites, groups of parts can behave in ways that no individual part in the group need intend, or perhaps even notice. Many fields have noticed this. In physics, it’s called complex systems; in chemistry, it’s called autocatalytic sets; in biology, it’s called superorganisms; in computer science, it’s called complex adaptive systems. In economics, it’s called spontaneous order; in planning, it’s called system dynamics; in philosophy, it’s called emergence. All amount to saying that the whole needn’t be the sum of its parts.

Are there network forces that might drive human groups to do similarly organized, yet non-planned, things that no one, not even leaders, intend, or perhaps even notice—except perhaps long after? Might there even be some sort of overall species network, perhaps some sort of human swarm? If so, like a termite colony, such a thing might obey its own network forces, regardless of who leads what group, or what anyone believes or desires. If such a thing were to exist, how much group behavior might it explain? What might be its network forces, its ‘physics?’ Might such a thing be in any way ‘life-like?’ In short: Is there Anything Else here? That’s what this book is about. Call it swarm physics.

As all the ‘might’s in that paragraph show, this is a book of speculation. It’s based on science, but isn’t itself science. There are eight chapters. Each of the first six covers one topic: food, labor, physical resources, institutions, economies, mental resources. Of the first five, each also introduces two network forces. The seventh chapter examines what all ten network forces may mean for the definition of life itself; then it uses that to examine whether it might make sense to talk about something, other than the United Nations, that might be larger than nations or even regions (like the European Union). The eighth and last chapter summarizes the book, discusses how change happens, and suggests a possible future.