Swarm Intelligence And Free Enterprise

“Is there a polity better ordered, the offices better distributed, and more inviolably observed and maintained, than that of bees?” – Montaigne

There is an article in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) about something scientists call “swarm intelligence.” It suggests an interesting insight into the value of teamwork in problem solving and provides a thought about why free markets perform better than controlled ones.

Swarm intelligence describes how relatively dumb animals can do amazingly smart things.

Termites, for example, have nearly nonexistent brains, yet “they build mounds that are engineering marvels, able to maintain ambient temperature and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide even as the nest grows.”

Ants are able to find the shortest possible route from their base to a food source. They do this by working together. Individual ants wander out, walking here and there. As they do so, each ant leaves a chemical substance — a pheromone — that then attracts other ants.

“In a simple case, two ants leave the nest at the same time and take different paths to a food source, marking their trails with pheromone. The ant that took the shorter path will return first, and this trail will now be marked with twice as much pheromone (from the nest to the food and back) as the path taken by the second ant, which has yet to return.”

Humans are obviously more intelligent than social insects, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also use swarm intelligence to guide our behavior.

In fact, many of our traditional customs may be derived from swarm intelligence. The institutions and rituals of marriage, divorce, and even war may be among them. Swarm intelligence may also be used by businesses to resolve complicated problems that can’t be easily solved by any individual person.

An example from the HBR: a freight-transportation business that used swarm intelligence to figure out its extremely complex routing parameters. In a case involving a package bound from Chicago to Boston, it turned out to be more efficient to leave it on a plane heading for Atlanta and then to Boston than to take it off and put it on the next flight to Boston.

There is something to this idea that relates to a longstanding “debate” on economics. On one side are those who believe that problems can be fixed by the ideas of one or a few very smart people. There are also those who think that social systems are way too complex and way too fickle for any one system to work over time.

There is part of my mind — an arrogant part, I admit — that would like to be in charge of the world’s ills so I could set them straight. There’s another part — the part that has tried and failed to fix social problems — that is inclined to think that such ills are best sorted out over time through swarm intelligence.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]