Hive Mind

During World War II Norman Rockwell completed a series of four paintings based on President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” address to Congress in 1941. They appeared originally as covers for the Saturday Evening Post and later as posters to sell war bonds. The one dedicated to freedom of speech showed a working-class citizen in plaid shirt and suede jacket getting up to say his piece at a New England town meeting. Rockwell, a recent transplant to Vermont from the suburbs of New York, was reportedly impressed by his initial exposure to grassroots democracy in his new hometown.

As a long-time resident of a small town in New England, I take a somewhat more jaundiced view of town-meeting government. Winston Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. He also said, "The best argument against·democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." So far as I know, Churchill never attended a New England town meeting, but it sure sounded like he did. In my experience, every crank in town shows up for these civic engagements, and they are not bashful about displaying their ignorance to all and sundry.

I was initially skeptical when entomologist Thomas Seeley stated that a New England town meeting was the closest human gathering to a honeybee swarm. I assumed he held the same idealized view of town meetings that Rockwell presented in his “Four Freedoms” illustration. But no, it turns out decision-making in a honeybee hive is no less raucous than a town-meeting debate over the school budget. You might assume the queen bee makes all the important decisions, and the worker bees are mere drones that exist to do her bidding. However, you would be wrong. The queen makes no decisions, and the workers hash it out. When it’s time to find a new hive in the spring, they fly off in all directions to scout out possible locations. They then return to the hive and do a little waggle dance to indicate the direction and the distance to their favored new location. Now comes the hard part: how do you choose among competing locations? Seeley found that the scouts would head-butt bees advocating competing locations until a consensus was reached, and the swarm would then fly off as one to its new location.

Seeley demonstrated that a bee swarm is not necessarily of one mind on every topic, at least not initially – but then neither is the human mind. There is no single center of decision-making in our brain, and different neurons may arrive at different conclusions on the same question. Seeley notes that the bees in a swarm weigh about as much in total as the neurons in a human brain (about 1.5 lbs.), and they go through a remarkably similar process in making up their mind. There are no head-butts, but like individual honeybees, neurons must make their case for a particular course of action, seeking to persuade other neurons to fire in tandem and to suppress neurons with other ideas. Neurons go through their own form of town meeting to arrive at a consensus.

Compared with 100 billion neurons in the human brain, the honeybee – with a brain the size of a sesame seed – has fewer than one million neurons to work with. Yet its brain is ten times denser than a mammalian brain and is capable of ten trillion computations per second. A honeybee has excellent sight, smell, color discrimination and directional sense, as well as a good memory and even rudimentary conceptual understanding. Yet researchers have long believed that the best way to appreciate the honeybee’s mental prowess is by looking at the swarm as a whole. The entire colony, consisting of tens of thousands of individual bees, operates very much like a human nervous system, with each bee functioning as a single neuron. This is what entomologists mean when they talk about a “hive mind.”

As bees’ head-butting behavior makes clear, having a hive mind does not mean honeybees have only one thought on any given subject. This is similar to the mistake totalitarian regimes make in trying to impose uniform thinking on the “masses.” Individuals bring their own perspective to any given subject and can only be compelled to adopt the party line by force. Honeybee colonies have no central decision-making authority and must act by consensus. Yet somehow they give every appearance of operating as one once their mind is made up.

Some entomologists believe evolution and environment pressures have caused certain insect species, notably ants and bees, to function as superorganisms, with individual insects organizing themselves into separate castes to perform specialized functions within the colony. Will human beings ever be able to do the same? Evolution brings about biological changes very slowly over thousands of generations. But some people think that technology is already causing a hive mind to emerge in humans through the Internet and global social networks. We’re just too close to the head-butting that goes on within the hive to appreciate it.

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