Are we just flockers?

This link is to an article by Seth Frey and associates at UC Davis published just recently. They are computational scientists.

It used to be that philosophers, social scientists of all kinds, ethologists and biologists studied group behaviour. Now the computational scientists are getting into the act. But this group and others use ‘flocking’ rather than sociality to address the issue. They argue that the propensity we have for flocking trumps rationality. We, they argue, would rather follow the flock than think for ourselves. I don’t think we have to look too hard to find evidence of that.

I’m working on a post that argues that we are by definition social animals and that we seem to prefer gathering together than living in isolation. Cities are essentially flocks of people. Even in rural areas the tendency is still for us to group our homes together in settlements. It seems to be built in. No matter how much some of us protest to the contrary, we do seem to require each other’s company in a big way. Yes, of course, we do it for security and mutual support, but that would be a rational explanation. Seth Frey and his colleagues argue that it’s not about logical reasons like security and mutual support that we seem to congregate and hang out in groups, it’s instinctual. They argue that we are an animal species after all, and a sexually reproducing one, and we flock like other species out of instinct rather than out of reason.

I’ve thought that for decades, as have a lot of thinkers over the millennia, but it’s tough for me to accept the idea because as a teacher and writer, I have worked hard to encourage people to incorporate a logical and rational bent into their thinking. Now, these computational scientists are arguing that it may be all for nought.



Driving in downtown Vancouver over the past few days reminded me of something I used to ask my students in a lecture I did about sociality and social integration. I used to ask them whom they trusted. They would invariably point to family or friends or jokingly say they trusted no one. But, of course, we trust all kinds of people implicitly and regularly all the time. Our trust is not restricted to our intimates. It’s tough though because although we consciously and unconsciously think of other people and their effects on us, we deny that they have any control over us. Most of us truly believe that we and we alone are responsible for our lives and actions.

Truth is, we’re so conditioned by the ideology of individualism that we hardly think in social terms at all, about other people and their profound effects on our lives. There was even the spectacle a few years ago of a British prime minister suggesting that there is no such thing as society at all, only individuals and individual action.

Well, we are connected in ways we hardly understand and virtually never attend to and one way we deny that is by labeling other people. We often label people pejoratively in a myriad of ways. We denigrate others and don’t have any sense of connection with them, in fact we are often repulsed by them. Yet every time we get into our cars and drive down a busy street or highway we trust all of them, even the repulsive ones, like they were family.

Just think of the number of people driving anywhere downtown on any given day and there is bound to be a wide variety of people you could think of. There may be commuters, delivery truck and taxi drivers, moms and dads driving their kids to school, police cars and ambulances, service vehicles of all kinds but there could also be murderers, rapists, criminals of all kinds, violent domestic offenders and of course there will be a motley collection of more or less unsavory characters like conservative politicians, bond traders, media hypers, regular bullies and just plain obnoxious people most of whom you would never choose to associate with in any way in any other circumstance. Not all these categories of people are mutually exclusive either. A mom driving her kids to school could be beating the crap out of her kids when they get home in the afternoon and the service van driver could very well be a rapist. We just don’t know. We still trust them.

We trust that if they’re coming at us in the oncoming lane at 60, 80 or 120 k/hour they will not wander into our lane and kill us. Even if we’re going in the same direction as they are, we trust that they won’t wander into our lane and force us onto the side of the road, maybe into an abutment or barrier. Either way we may very well die. Of course there are accidents, but they are unintentional or are supposed to be. We don’t usually ascribe accidents to malevolence. To ignorance and stupidity, yes, but not malevolence.

You may argue that you really don’t trust them. Well, of course you do. You may not like it, but you do. If you drive, you trust. You trust every other driver on the road. I know that’s a scary thought, but that’s the way it is. You trust murderers with your life.

Thinking about Quality of Life some more…

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about quality of life since I’ve been working on the Comox Valley Social Planning Society’s 2013 Quality of Life Report.  I’m trying to whittle down the idea of quality of life to a few key concepts and I’m trying to think about the issue of quality in general.  It informs how I approach my current research and writing. 

I’ve come to the conclusion over the past while that quality of life can be summarized along two major continua, mobility and sociality.  Mobility encompasses many forms including physical mobility or the ability to move around, from place to place.  Mobility can be hampered by illness, injury or the lack of monetary means.  No money, no go.  Sociality is a term that refers to our need to be around other people, to be social.  That need has a biological basis but is reflected in most of what we do and are in life.  There are many aspects to sociality.  I’ve written before about what happens when children are left alone without contact.  They die at a rate 4 times what we might consider normal.  The harshest punishment in Canadian prisons is solitary confinement.  Solitary means no sociality and no mobility either which means in my analysis here, just about the worst condition a human can suffer.  Of course there are always exceptions to every rule.  There are people who shun the company of others and some who are content to sit still for days on end.  And, of course there are subjective and objective dimensions to mobility and sociality.  Whatever we ‘feel’ about mobility and sociality, there are social values and norms, moral codes, that determine how we should think about these things.  We know that ‘idle hands do the work of the devil,’ and that warm feelings can be had with the company of family and friends.  We have all kinds of ‘sayings’ that glorify mobility and sociality.  Just listen for them.  They’re everywhere.  Even when we glorify individualism or expressions of individuality, we do it only when it conforms to social moral standards.  

In fact, our whole morality is built on the glorification of mobility and sociality and the deprecation of immobility (idleness, laziness, indolence, etc.) and standing alone and away from the group (snobbishness, lone wolf, unfriendly, self-centered).  Movies are based on these themes, so is music.  We go to a party and are asked what we do for a living.  Well, what you do for a living tells a lot about how mobile you can be.  The more mobile we are, the more social prestige we are afforded.  ‘Planning any trips?’  That’s another one of those questions that is aimed at getting at how mobile you might be.  To put it bluntly, we afford people highest prestige points for being wealthy and healthy.  There are some very primal themes at work here if you think about it. 

Mobility equals life, immobility equals death.  Living things move, generally and dead things don’t, at least on the face of it.  In reality the situation is much more complex than that, but for now, let’s stick with the appearances of things.  It’s not surprising then that we value life over death, even though one cannot exist without the other.  Well, at least we often say that we value life, but that’s often conditional; there are strings attached.  For instance we generally don’t eat live things so we obviously value death and dead things…we just don’t like to think of it that way.  It’s not surprising, then, that we would value highly things that move…the faster the better.  I could write a book about this, but for now, just a few hints at what is to come.

In terms of sociality, well, it’s pretty clear that we value collective effort, unless it’s in a union of if there’s any hint of ‘communism’ attached to it…  Teams that win do so because of the collective effort, the dampening of individualism.  After winning the big game, you’ll never hear the top player look into the camera and say: “Yeah, I carried this team.  If it wasn’t for me we’d have lost this game!”  No, no.  It’s always, “Well, the team came together on this one.  We’re all in this together.”  We don’t like loners and we’re not too sure about hermits, either.  Lots more to be said…maybe I’ll visit here a little more often.  I am busy though, so don’t expect too much from me just yet.  

 By the way, rummaging through my papers a couple of days ago I ran across a plan I had put together for a book I intended to write some day.  Still looks interesting.  I’ll have to share that with you here sometime.