[UPSC Mains Focus] Swarms of extremism

June 8, 2020 | The Hindu (Link)

Mains Paper 3: Environment

Prelims level: Swarm intelligence

Mains level: Function of Swarm intelligence and its effectiveness in political movements


  • Clouds of locusts have overrun western India.
  • As with COVID-19, country borders and barriers put up by proud sovereign nations have been crossed without difficulty, as the locusts have travelled from Africa to South Asia.

Swarm intelligence:

  • Are locusts intelligent? Individual locusts are not. However, their swarms are swift, focused, responsive to stimuli and dangerously effective in their depredations.
  • Biologists call this phenomenon ‘swarm intelligence’, where the individuals that make up a colony of living creatures are singularly unintelligent and are driven by programmed instinct, but their collective actions make their entire colony intelligent as an entity by itself.
  • Swarm intelligence is common amongst insects; bees, ants and locusts demonstrate it amply. Yet, it is not unknown amongst higher animals as well.
  • Migrating birds and shoals of fish display high degrees of swarm intelligence too.

How does swarm intelligence work?

  • An important point to note is that they are leaderless.
  • A queen bee is not a royal in our human sense; she is just a vast progeny-producing machine.
  • It is fascinating to see how a shoal of fish, without a ‘king or queen’ fish, when attacked at one flank by a predator, almost instantly displays an avoidance reaction.
  • How did the fish furthest away from the attacked flank know that the shoal was in danger in less than a microsecond and veer away from the predator?
  • Scientists put it down to the fact that within a swarm, individuals are constantly communicating with each other through actions, signals or otherwise, in a binary manner.
  • Through binary communication, the fact that the swarm is in danger reaches all individuals in an instant and thereby, the instant response.
  • Millions and billions of binary communications add up to a sum larger than the whole.

No biological curiosity:

  • This phenomenon is no biological curiosity. It is the very essence of the logic behind understanding brain function, as also the design of artificial intelligence.
  • If the human brain was considered a colony of independently alive neuron cells, then it can be imagined that all its nuanced thought emerges from simple, binary synapse mediated conversations between individual neurons.
  • The atomisation of complex thinking as emerging from binary signals also lies at the foundation of computer science.

What does the peculiar effectiveness of extremist political movements?

  • They combine swarm intelligence with the more conventional leadership models shown by higher-level animals.
  • We see all around us, for example, the resurgence of powerful right-wing movements, all fuelled by leaders who provide the focus of attention, then upscaled by swarms of followers, engaged in binary conversations.
  • A leader signals something, whether it is the need to distort history, create a false sense of assurance in a faltering economy, fuel hate against somebody, or signal success when strategies fail.
  • From then on, the swarms take over the creating of simple messages, fake news, sloganeering and hate.
  • Individuals down the ladder, shorn of individual capabilities for critical thinking, share messages, amplify them and make hashtags trend.

Is there any political future for the critical, thinking mind then?

  • At first sight, liberals who are ruggedly individualistic are especially unsuited for being a part of any swarm.
  • They reject binary communications, and see their proximate supporters as competitors rather than as part of a larger, coordinated order.
  • Yet leaderless movements are not unknown in the liberal, freedom-loving world either.
  • Think Hong Kong, the Arab Spring, and you have the elements of swarm intelligence backing the flowering and upscaling of pro-freedom movements.
  • Eliminating political locusts is neither practical nor desirable. What we need are more compassionate, thinking and inclusive locusts.