Complex problems often have simple solutions

I watched the bird flock sweep across the sky. Suddenly they veered left in unison, as suddenly darted to the right, and then swooped downward toward the ground only to rise upward and circle back again. Their movements were perfectly coordinated and graceful. There were no collisions, and the flock as a whole seemed more graceful than any single bird, even better than a well-choreographed dance troupe.

The only things unusual about this sight was that it was all taking place on a computer screen, and the birds looked more like little, gray, paper airplanes than birds. This is because I was watching a computer animation, not a real flock of birds. Yet I could see no difference in their behavior from the real thing.

Most of us assume that birds play a game of “follow the leader.” We think the bird in front leads, and the others follow. But, apparently, this isn’t so. The computer simulation was established by a set of simple rules instructing each “bird” in the animated flock to hold its position steady against all birds around it. That is, the “bird” on its left should be kept at a fixed distance and a specific angle. If another “bird” shows up on the right, the distance and angle should be maintained as well.

There is no “leader bird.” Each bird in the flock simply reacts to the movements of other birds nearby. Orderly flock interactions arise from these local bird to bird interactions. Much of human society seems to develop in the same way. Neighborhoods seem to function for the common good in many cases, especially during emergencies, long before large organizations can have much effect.

This is an example of what scientists call self-organization. Self-organization occurs when groups of autonomous particles interact in such a way as to give rise to organized patterns or behaviors. Birds are not the only animals to self-organize. Ant colonies, termites, beehives and slime molds all self-organize. The immune system operates without centralized direction.  The development of the human embryo occurs without central control.

Central to the idea of self-organization is the concept of decentralization. Many social organizations appear to occur in a decentralized manner. Traffic jams appear to develop spontaneously. Market economies develop complex behaviors and patterns that arise without leadership. Adam Smith argued against centralized control of economies more than 200 years ago. One of the unique contributions of American political thought was the idea of states’ rights and decentralized national government.

Decentralization appears to occur at certain scales. When things get too large, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage all the details, and efforts to do so often create, paradoxically, disorganization. For example, a beehive may have over 100,000 individuals. The queen does not tell the hive what to do. But upon appropriate cues, the hive grows a new queen and splits into two. It’s interesting that the Soviet Union and IBM decentralized their management within one day of each other.

The common assumption is that when something seems complex, it must have a complex explanation. However, time after time that doesn’t appear to be true. Sixty years ago people thought that the gene must be a protein because proteins were the largest, most-complex molecules. We assumed that only the most complex molecules could account for the amazing diversity of the living world.

Instead we have discovered that inheritance and diversity are explained by a chemical code made up of just four elements. These elements behave much like a nested binary code with two elements dictating a small set of choices. The other two possibilities determine the final message. There is no boss in the cell.

Time after time, complex things are shown to be constructed of simple things utilized in unique ways. Organization can occur, indeed does occur, without central direction. It’s almost as if decentralization is a part of the plan. 

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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