Friday, February 1, 2013

The Emergence of Birds in the Sky and Such

Image from Physics World

Have you ever watched a large flock of  birds create beautiful patterns in the sky and wondered how it all works? Curiously, there seems to be no time lag between the movements of each individual. How does each bird know when to turn and where to go?

People have wondered about this perplexing behavior for centuries.  Perhaps, as the ancient Romans thought, it is an expression of the will of the Gods.  Early scientists could not fathom the reason for such coordination, and some even suggested some kind of natural telepathy could explain this phenomenon.  Recent studies using high-speed cameras and computational models suggest that it is all due to the simple behaviors of individuals.  Yet, even these studies have raised questions that are difficult to answer.  See Explaining Bird Flocks in Audibon Magazine.

I believe we need to look to the inherent wholeness in nature to understand why birds flock the way they do.  An ecologist understands nature as a web of interdependent systems -- a holistic process that goes far beyond simple cause and effect explanations.  In fact, the more complex and diverse a system, the hardier and healthier it becomes.  When it comes to flocking birds, perhaps there is something to the way nature works that we are only beginning to understand.

Termite Mound by Razmataz
How do those wondrous, crystalline patterns form within a snowflake? How does a termite colony know how to build tall, palatial mound with no centralized control?  How do a meager 24,000 genes create the incredible human complexity made of trillions of interdependent cells and millions of interellated processes, including the ability for you to read and make sense of this blog?

The answer may be found in the principle of emergence -- how complex patterns arise from many simple interactions and seem to create something greater than the sum of it's constituent parts. This feels rather metaphysical, and so there has been resistance to this concept within science. But no reliance on magic is needed. To understand the world this way requires a radical change in thinking, a paradigm shift one might say.  Look for it, it's everywhere.

I think I will post these thoughts in a complex system with no central organization or governance that is fundamentally altering the nature of our global culture and economy, helping nations rise and fall, and shaping human socialization like never before.  Just a bunch of connected users and computers really.


  1. Explain the murder of crows Ellowyn and I saw about a week ago. About 75-100 birds. I have NEVER seen that many crows before. All on one persons house and lawn. Seemed like a bad omen to me. Not very complex though, just strange and bit magical.

  2. Crows are recovering after a huge die off from West Nile virus from a few years ago. So I suppose I would take it as a good omen that they are coming back.

  3. These days what I really like to see are the juncoes foraging around the house in the bushes. They only come around in the winter. I understand that in the summer they retreat into the woods. Not as spectacular as those clouds of birds creating geometry in the sky, but a sign of life after (and during) winter.

  4. A holistic process that goes far beyond simple cause and effect explanations. over here In fact, the more complex and diverse a system, the hardier and healthier it becomes.

  5. Birds are a wonderful sign of life in the spring, Vince. I agree. A great example of how nature is fundamentally holistic, Carol. Good point. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Right now just what I really like to determine are the juncoes foraging at home inside bushes. Many people simply come around inside wintertime. I recognize in which inside Watch here summer they will retire into the timber. Less amazing since individuals atmosphere associated with wild birds developing geometry inside heavens, yet indicative associated with living following (and during) wintertime.

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