Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Ants, NATS, and Swarm Logic

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Ants, NATS, and Swarm Logic

Article excerpt

BY THE TIME THIS COLUMN IS PRINTED, a new calendar year will have begun and the 52nd NATS conference in Salt Lake City will be a distant memory. At this time of writing, however, the conference only recently ended, and because my mind is perennially on cognitive subjects, I am pondering why it is that congregations of like-minded people are both mentally stimulating and spiritually restorative. As if in answer, Steven Johnson's celebrated 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software-a book New York Times critic Frank Rich called "essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this culture"-rose to the top of my summer reading list.1

What is "Emergence Theory," and what could it possibly have to do with NATS? To answer the first question, stated very simply, emergence theory is a theory of organization that explains why the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. As this month's column unfolds, the answer to the latter part of the question will emerge.


The history of Emergence Theory (also known as the "Dynamical Systems Theory") dates back at least to the late nineteenth century, and perhaps even as far back as Aristotle. According to one scientist, the whole notion of "emergence" is more of a "venerable concept in search of a theory,"2 which makes sense in light of its multiple appearances in other fields as diverse as biology, psychology, philosophy, religion, architecture, urban planning, economics, business management, and as the star player in the physics theory known as "Chaos."3 Fortunately for the layman, rather than conduct an exhaustive history of emergence theory as a whole, Johnson instead begins his book with a story. He weaves together the tales of seminal research conducted on two systems in nature that, at first glance, would seem to have little to do with human beings: slime mold and ant colonies. (In a nod to a general antipathy toward slimy, creepy things, Johnson credited his editor with "not flinch[ing] when I told her my idea about opening the whole book with slime molds."4 Similarly, I would ask my readers to bear with me while I attempt the slippery high-wire act of linking slime mold to NATS.)

The simple organism Dictyostelium discoideum, or slime mold, "oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm" by assembling itself into an "us" when necessary, but crucially, without a leader cell calling the shots.5

The researchers who conducted the slime mold experiments throughout the 1960s, Evelyn Keller and Lee Segel, had to disprove the so-called "pacemaker" theory that held sway at the time, which essentially held that in any organism, a leader cell (or group of master cells) made decisions and led the way: the "top-down" model. By thinking outside this accepted norm, they showed how all individual slime mold cells respond to chemical messages left by others (what Johnson likens to "a giant game of Telephone"), resulting in a self-aggregated swarm.6 It took some twenty years for Keller and Segels work to be honored, rather than dismissed as sloppy research, and today their work is recognized, in Johnson's words, as "a classic case study in bottom-up behavior."7

Similarly, research on ant colonies pioneered by socio-biologist E. O. Wilson and, more recently, Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon, has revealed how a community of simple insects self-organizes into an ant colony capable of complex behavior. Wilson discovered that ants secrete chemical messages called pheromones, and it is the response to these messages by individual ants that accounts for the behavior of the colony as a whole. Dr. Gordon's ongoing research in collective behavior suggests far-reaching implications for many aspects of our society, including new insights into how (as Johnson's book subtitle lists) cities, software, and even the human brain evolve. "Replace ants with neurons and pheromones for neurotransmitter and you might just as well be talking about the human brain. …

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