The Smart Swarm and Hayek

Posted on October 18, 2010 by


Peter Miller’s excellent, The Smart Swarm ( 2010, Penguin; New York)
describes the coordinated behaviour of insects, birds and fishes and
asks if we humans can learn things from such behaviour; a knowledge of
Hayek might have helped his (already pretty compelling) case a bit. As
is reasonably pretty clear (see previous blogs on this website), such
coordinated behaviour, swarms, flocks and shoals result from individual
insects, birds and fish following rules of behaviour. As Miller
describes the work of scientists in the area, it is amusing (and
perhaps interesting) to compare what they are now discovering to what
Hayek wrote (the references are to Law, Legislation and Liberty Vols I
to III (The University of Chicago Press)):

Miller: As colonies… ants are capable of solving problems far beyond
the abilities of individuals, such as how to find food, allocate
resources, or respond to competition from neighbours.’ (Miller; page 6)
Hayek : There was then probably much more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in
the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his
surroundings.’ (LL&L Vol III; page 157).

Miller: ‘By following a simple rule of thumb – ‘Drop your grain of soil
is somebody else has already done so’ – termite workers are able to
build something together that none can comprehend alone…. when termite
workers interact with one another during the construction process, they
do it indirectly rather than face to face…’ (Page 121)
Hayek : ‘One of the most important of these self-generating orders is
the wide-ranging division of labour which implies the mutual adjustment
of activities of people who do not know each other’ (LL&L Vol III, 158).

Miller: ‘The [termite] mound might look like a structure, but it’s
better thought of as a process.’ (127)
Hayek: ‘Social wholes are not given to us as what we may call “natural
units” which we recognise as similar with our sense, as we do with
flowers or butterflies, minerals or light-rays, or even forests or
ant-heaps….Words like “government” or “trade” or “army” or “knowledge”
do not stand for single observable things but for structures of
relationships which can be described only in terms of a schematic
representation or “theory” of the persistent system of relationships
between some of the observed elements which can be merely inferred’
(this quote is from The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952, The Free
Press, Glencoe, IL); pages 55 and 71)

Miller: ‘Their movements seem so organized that we can’t believe they’re
not driven by a central intelligence.’ (163)
Hayek Vol I: ‘The first answer to which our anthropomorphic habits of
thought almost inevitably lead us is that it [orderly behaviour] must be
due to the design of some thinking mind’ (LL&L Vol; I36)

Miller: A Hungarian physicist, Tamas Vicsek, ‘inspired by the behaviour
of magnetic particles…. Was it possible, he wondered, that flocking,
schooling, and other biological phenomena were driven by similar
principles…’ (175)
Hayek : ‘Another example from physics is even more instructive. In the
familiar school experiment in which iron filings on a sheet of paper are
made to arrange themselves….The forces emanating from the magnet and
from each of the iron filings will thus interact with the environment to
produce a unique instance of the general pattern…’ (LL&L Vol I; 40)

Miller: ‘The whole point is, to model a crowd, you model lots of
individuals, and the crowd is an emergent property of them reacting
together.’ (183)
Miller: ‘What impressed Radakov about such a wave was how it emerged
entirely from local interactions among the fish. It began with
individuals closest to the disturbance, then spread through a kind of
chain reaction as other fish responded to their neighbours’ (197)
Miller: ‘And they do it entirely through adjustments in the way that
individuals react to one another, rather than through some form of
centralized communication.’ (203)
Hayek : …the ignorance of particular facts which are or will become
known to somebody and thereby affects the whole structure of society.
This structure of human activities constantly adapts itself and
functions through adapting itself, to millions of facts which in their
entirety are not known to anybody’ (LL&L Vol I; 13)

Miller: ‘Groups even develop a form of collective memory … that they
hold on to even after the individuals that collected the information
have left. (212)
Hayek : ‘And the result of such past experience gained through trial and
error is preserved not as a recollection of particular events…. but as
a sense of the importance of observing certain rules’ (LL&L Vol II; 4)

Posted in: Uncategorized