But remember, in such situations, if you leave the swarm you get eaten, if you stay in the swarm every other "swarmer" tries to eat you while you are trying to eat the swarmer ahead of you. It's a rather "perfect" society, when you come to think of it. Maybe it is in fact a utopian goal of some of our more vicious rulers. Of course, as long at they themselves can be insulated from swarm behavior. Swarm behavior is meant only for the mob, and not for the truly intelligent people. But once a swarm gets started, it is not possible to control it.
Iain Couzin: We studied swarming crickets in the southern United States called the Mormon cricket, and these Mormon crickets are large, black creatures that form really dense swarms, marching along the ground, it's a fantastic sight. And they can even form slicks on roads because their density is so high, so they are dangerous to drivers in the area. And what we were interested in is why are these insects doing this? It looks like a strongly coordinated behaviour, that they're all in agreement that they should be moving in one direction. But again, our knowledge of collective behaviour means we have to always look a bit deeper, and there can sometimes be intriguing and simpler explanations. In this case that's exactly what we found. Going out there to Utah, looking at these crickets we found that they would eat road kills, for example, rabbits. They'd been gnawing the ears down, crawling in through the mouth, crawling in through the eyes and eating the brain, really remarkable stuff. So these vegetarian crickets seem to have a strong fondness for food.
Stephen Simpson at Sydney University has developed artificial diets with protein and carbohydrate and so on, so we could begin questions about...now, what do you really like to eat? We found that they strongly preferred protein to carbohydrate and they really liked salt concentrations at exactly that concentration of their own blood. So what we found that instead of this being some collective, cooperative behaviour, what we have in fact is a forced march. Every cricket is trying to eat the one ahead and prevent itself from being eaten from behind. We found that they were very aggressive with each other, attacking an immobile insect within 17 seconds and really jumping on it and biting it. So one may then ask questions; why, if it's so dangerous to be in a swarm, why don't they leave? But another colleague at the University of Sydney, Greg Sword, using tiny little radio transmitters on these crickets found that it's even more dangerous to leave the group because they get eaten by predators. So really they're making the best of a rather bad situation.
The Mormon Cricket - also known as Anabrus simplex,
Quote from "The Science Show" @ The Australian Broadcasting System. The whole interview can be read or listened to at above link.
Ian Couzin's web page.
For the full paper in which Couzin's discusses this specific topic see, Simpson, S.J., Sword A.G., Lorch, P.D & Couzin, I.D. (2006) Cannibal crickets on a forced march for protein and salt. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103, 4152-4156.
Now, I don't wish to be mistaken in my ironic comments. I don't think that a direct comparison between human society and social insects can ever bring you to an understanding of human society.
But the system of a swarm may help you to understand other processes in the world and in society. This kind of understanding may come by way of a very loose metaphor, or it may actually describe a collective system of some sort or another. When studying human society there is no scientific royal road -- sociobiology, historical materialism, capitalist economics, sociology, various anthropological theories, etc., are all only attempts to model small slices of the human social world. If taken too seriously they are mere ideological justifications of specific world views. As theoretical explanations and models of reality they are failures, that should not be dismissed as useful attempts at understanding. My attitude to looking at the social insects, or our cousin primates for that matter, and comparing them to human society is similar to looking at these failed sociological theories.
I have two caveats to the last paragraph: First when we study the social behavior of our cousin primates we may be studying the roots of our own behavior. Second, nature may provide only a certain number of patterns for collective systems of individual animals to coordinate, and studying flocks or swarms or ant hills or bee hives may give us insight into such "coordination" systems.
New York City
15 December 2006
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.