9 years, 5 months ago
National Geographic gives us what John Robb calls a low impact introduction to swarm theory. It is interesting not only for the potential application to an insurgency (as Robb claims) but also for counterinsurgency.
How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group’s success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.
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.
Consider the problem of job allocation. In the Arizona desert where Deborah Gordon studies red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), a colony calculates each morning how many workers to send out foraging for food. The number can change, depending on conditions. Have foragers recently discovered a bonanza of tasty seeds? More ants may be needed to haul the bounty home. Was the nest damaged by a storm last night? Additional maintenance workers may be held back to make repairs. An ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next. But how does a colony make such adjustments if no one’s in charge? Gordon has a theory.
Ants communicate by touch and smell. When one ant bumps into another, it sniffs with its antennae to find out if the other belongs to the same nest and where it has been working. (Ants that work outside the nest smell different from those that stay inside.) Before they leave the nest each day, foragers normally wait for early morning patrollers to return. As patrollers enter the nest, they touch antennae briefly with foragers …
That’s how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. (Temnothorax albipennis, for example, can rate the quality of a potential nest site using multiple criteria.) But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. “Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions,” he says.
But breaking this down into Aristotelian categories, the fact that ants have no “leadership” may be an accidental feature of their behavior rather than an essential feature. While ants may communicate with signals, smells and other things that only an ant would know about, these instincts and biological functions may be in fact the leadership which governs the colony. Further, swarm theory may be applicable in societies which are governed by more strict individual leadership roles.
It is not readily apparent how this theory applies to insurgents who lack the biological features of ants, but given the rapid communication abilities of U.S. forces currently in Iraq, it is becoming apparent that they are swarming with respect to the insurgency. Information flow is critical – it is the foundation for this swarming. In Al Qaeda’s War on Iraq we discussed the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader al-Tunisi several days ago.
“Al-Tunisi was one of the most senior leaders … the emir of foreign terrorists in Iraq and part of the inner leadership circle,