Blog :: That's Remarkable

Not All Flocking is Good

Locust Swarm in Philipines (c. 1912)My friends and collaborators have been exposed to my interest in emergent behavior in systems so much, they roll their eyes whenever I say words like "collective intelligence" and "flocking".  I've ever gone so far to develop some management ideas based on some common rules of collective behavior in groups.  It's no surprise, then, that I was fascinated by Princeton evolutionary biologist Iain D. Couzin's talk at WNYC's Greenspace on collective animal behaviors (video)

Most of Ian's presentation was standard flocking stuff, but not his bit on forced marches of young locusts.  Most of the cases of flocking to date have seen it on a range of behavior from highly egalitarian social cooperation to selfish preservation strategies with fringe group benefits.  According to recent research (PDF), however, these crawling swarms of flightless locust nymphs are driven by something much more sinister: cannibalism.  When food is scarce, the locust begin to nibble each others backsides.  This leads to an entire collumn of nasty buggers trying to eat the grasshopper in front while trying not to be eaten from behind.  Similar behavior in Mormon Crikets (actually giant wingless katydids), has been shown to be driven by a quest for protien and salt.

Interestingly, it seems like there are mechanisms within the insects themselves that seem to encourage this behavior.  For one thing, when they swarm, they change to more visible colors.  They also secrete attractional hormones.  While no scientist has drawn the line yet, it's almost as if cannabilism is biologically encouraged.

All this made me think about human behavior in environments of scarity and high competition for resources -- everything from wars to economies to office politics.  Take for example the later:  How much performance in office can be attributed to fear that employees lower in the company will eat you from behind if you don't keep up and hunger for the status, power, and pay of those above?  From the Social Darwinian perspective, it could be argued that such a ruthless work evironment benefits the fitness of the whole.  But is cannablism good for locusts?  I guess that depends if you finish the march on your feet or in someone else's stomach.