Dr James Marshall, of the University of Sheffield´s Department of Computer Science, who has also previously worked on similarities between how brains and insect colonies make decisions, says: “Up to now we’ve been asking if honeybee colonies might work in the same way as brains; now the new mathematical modelling we’ve done makes me think we should be asking whether our brains might work like honeybee colonies.”
This is interesting in two quite different ways, I think.
One is that here we have scientists suggesting our brains are essentially not single entities in themselves, but collective entities made up of various impulses and counter-impulses which battle with each other to steer us in certain directions.
This is close the view of humanity expressed by the great but neglected Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880-1942) whose descriptions of the inner workings of people’s minds bring out the way we are often scarcely in control of our own reactions, for all the vanity we possess about our own unique ‘character’ and ‘personality’.
The other side of the coin is that the scientists are saying that a swarm of bees equates to a single being, even though each bee is physically separate from the other.
While humans are more complex individually than insects, it seems a clear extension of this theory to propose that human collectives (tribes, communities, societies) are also effectively organisms, like swarms of bees, and that individuals can function as components of those greater organisms.
But also important to note is that it is the freedom of the individual bees to react autonomously and in ways opposed to others in the swarm – sending out ‘stop signals’ for instance – that enables the bees to go through an intelligent decision-making process.
This is the tension at the heart of anarchism – a simultaneous emphasis on collective responsibility and on individual autonomy.
Some see this is a paradox, but it isn’t. The role of free individuals is crucial to the functioning of a healthy society, to enable it to respond to circumstances in a fast and subtle way.
Where this is blocked, as it is today, we have problems.