Swarm Theory: Learning from Nature’s Collective Intelligences

Last evening my husband encouraged me to read The Genius of Swarms in the latest National Geographic Magazine. The article explains what scientists are learning about collective behavior and how that knowledge can be used to solve human problems. It’s a fascinating article for anyone interested in leadership.

For example, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, looked at how bees determine a new nest site. Scout bees fly out to potential nest sites, and then return to “tell” (dance) the other bees why their site is better. Soon more bees were at the best nest site than the others. The scout bees returned to tell the rest of the hive and they all moved to the best site.

The bees’ rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices—so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.

“I’ve applied what I’ve learned from the bees to run faculty meetings,” he says. To avoid going into a meeting with his mind made up, hearing only what he wants to hear, and pressuring people to conform, Seeley asks his group to identify all the possibilities, kick their ideas around for a while, then vote by secret ballot. “It’s exactly what the swarm bees do, which gives a group time to let the best ideas emerge and win. People are usually quite amenable to that.” 

There are several other interesting examples and applications to human organizations in the article. Check it out for yourself and/or view the accompanying photos here.

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