I'm sure you have heard the story about the frog staying around to be boiled to death in a pot of water, rather than jumping out. Why? Because the frog compares its current state with the one just past, and accepts the hotter water as the new normal. But as a species, are we really like this, or is pessimism uncalled for? Are we instead, seeing a tipping-point; a game changer in play?
This image of the frog is often used as a metaphor for the troubles engulfing human society. Unlike the frog though, we are well aware of the issues: constantly increasing stress from many causes; a reinvention of time as the enemy; inequality that seems to keep on growing in all sorts of sectors; massive extinction rates; planetary pollution with plastics and chemicals; and global heating, which works directly with the frog analogy. Yet there is still a view that most float in this mess without the slightest desire to get out and fix it. I am not so sure any more.
Have you heard the word 'quorum'? If you have served on a committee, one subject to voting and a constitution, then you probably have. It is the minimum number of people needed for a vote to occur; designed to stop unrepresentative action. In the animal world it has more to do with reaching consensus.
We see this phenomenon in honeybees that have swarmed. They generally cluster in foliage, either laying down a vertical panel of waxy honeycomb or using the surface of the tight cluster (see the image included) as a dance floor.
In a boxed hive, the comb is used to showcase dances from different resources, however in a swarm, the bees are not looking for flowers. Their focus is on another resource: a new house for the entire collective.
Scouts span out and investigate the neighbourhood, bringing back impressions of nooks and crannies, or holes in walls, and communicate how they feel about this house-hunting in dance form. You can imagine your own hose-hunting experiences in dance form: leaps and bounds and lots of excitement when a great contender is found, all the way down to a feeble wobble and a sit-down when it does not go well.
The rest of the swarm hurries about sampling all the dances for their enthusiasm and other aspects such as house distance and direction. With time, some dances win out, which leads to visits by other scout bees, and repeated presentation of the dance by larger numbers on the dance floor. Then, when the majority are doing the same dance, a moment is reached and the entire swarm ups and leaves to follow that coded information to the selected new home.
Now, it is worth noting that the queen has nothing to do with this finding or deciding. Her only concern is to keep on sending out chemical signals to keep everyone on-side, together, and covering and protecting her, as the decision process takes place. You may be seeing the similarity I am driving at here: our human leaders, at least the ones that last, are careful to avoid placing themselves out in front. As leaders, their role is to maintain community cohesion and avoid anarchy in moments of change; and of course, address self-preservation.
So, in honeybees we see a form of quorum based on numbers dancing the same dance. But this approach is not restricted to social animals. Quorum sensing is seen in microbes. Here, bacteria grow in number, acting benignly in the host at first, that is until a certain population size is reached, and then they throw the switch. Their chemistry changes and they turn nasty, taking down the host quickly. To achieve this, a form of communication occurs between all the germs, which tells them when the population bomb-level is reached, then a change in gene expression is activated.
Quorum-based events have three things in common: wide-spread and rapid communication, a need to change, and increased volatility/ activity before the game changes. It is for these reasons that I am optimistic about the human situation.
Yahoo and MSN Messenger started in 1999; Facebook in 2004; Reddit and YouTube started in 2005; Twitter in 2006; Instagram, 2010; Google, 2011; then came the consolidation. Now, the population talks together on a global scale minute by minute, testing consensus. Global desire for change exists. Individuals have realised that leadership is not going to effect change, and are mobilising.
Corporate activity is shifting too, with B Corps and ethical portfolios, cheered on by opinion pieces in social media. And this burst in activity - this surge in communication, this bubbling up of caring and discarding of apathy - I take to be a sign that we have almost reached that quorum, ready to make the shift of achieving a rapid, planet-wide change for the better.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb