Where Ideas Really Come From (We Are All Bird Brains)

What’s called “big data” is the staggering number of bits and bytes in the trails that we all leave in our everyday computerized lives (think every phone call you make, every time you swipe your credit card, email a friend, tweet, download a song, open a web page, drive through an automated toll machine – times the 2.5 billion people in the world who use the internet or the 6.8 billion have cell phones). Big Data has, for the first time, made it possible for scientists to study the human species in the same way that scientists study tagged bears or birds or lions in their natural environments. This is a somewhat ironic “turning of the tables” – of the trackers being tracked.

Data scientists are now studying our collective movement, information exchange and social patterns at unprecedented scale and precision. It is the kind of objectivity for which the scientific community has longed – enough data to prove hypothesis and transform sweeping generalities into defendable arguments. 

The nature of the data collected is such that scientists can not only see what we do and where we do it, they can see how and where we learn. In other words, they can see where the ideas for what we do come from. The mathematical rules of behavior emerging from these observations has been named “social physics”; the understanding of how ideas and information flow from one person to another.

Here’s the interesting thing. What began as the study of how individuals make their own decisions is providing us with proof that humans are not the freethinking individuals we believe ourselves to be. 

It seems that social learning – those things we observe in our peers and communities – are equal in importance in determining our health, income and behavior to our genes or IQ. In an issue of New Scientist last spring, Alex Pentland wrote that “…over time, we develop a shared set of habits for how to act and respond in many different situations, and these largely automatic habits of action account for the vast majority or our daily behavior.”

It turns out that our individual ideas are those shared by our community, and not our own.  Who we talk to is more important than our character or intelligence. “Instead of individual rationality, our society appears to be governed by a collective intelligence that comes from the surrounding flow of ideas and examples…”

Switching sides to look at the more traditional “trackees”, there is a concomitant burst of study taking place on species other than our own; on the degree to which they are capable of rational decisions  and conscious thought. Through it, we have learned, for one thing, that the term “bird-brained” should no longer be an insult. Crows, for example, make their own tools, recognize human faces and remember those who have offended, intentionally lie to each other, buy their peanuts at vending machines and have learned to use cars at a red light to crack them.

Flock mentality has always been used pejoratively when applied to humans, but that is now up for reconsideration as well. In a remarkable essay called “Other Selves”, the late naturalist John A. Livingston ponders the difference between individual self and collective self. He makes the point that the human addiction to the idea of free will and individualism comes with a high cost for our awareness of the collective self that is nature. He describes flocks of sandpipers and their “speed and extraordinary maneuverability”, the “marvelous synchrony of their movements”. And of our human way of trying to comprehend it: “Steadfast in subservience to our individualistic meta-physics, we ask how the instructions are communicated. How does each and every single bird know what it is supposed to do? By what means are the necessary commands (the political assumption of a “leader” is ineradicable) transmitted and received? And how can an individual bird act on them so swiftly?”  The answer, according to Livingstone, is that a flock of birds is a super-organism, with discrete parts that flow from “one awareness, one consciousness, one self”. 

He goes on to suggest that this super-organism, which integrates individual selves, is a more evolved form of consciousness than the one we humans live in daily, and that we do not need to learn it, only to retrieve it from what we already know. Which means trying to erase the ideas we currently hold.

If this is beginning to remind you of eastern philosophies and other more spiritual than scientific views of the world that have been around for thousands of years but are now becoming the purview of science, that’s a good thing. If it makes you rethink our connection to and “superior” position within nature, bravo. If it makes you reconsider who you hang out with and where your ideas come from, that’s a great reason for hope.

Our own flock mentality is such that in the collective we have come to believe that reading should be short. there is, therefore, no time or space on a blog post to go deep into any of these ideas. I highly recommend it though; below are some things to assist with the dive.

Things to read: “Rooted in the Land”, Wes Jackson and William Vitik; “A field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit, “Mind of the Raven”, Bernd Heinrich; New Scientist, “The Death of Individuality”.

Written for unreasonable.is