Bees and ants are team players

March 27, 2009
Ant as aphid farmer

Ant as aphid farmer

Bees and ants have been reported in one study as ‘true team players’. This makes a useful metaphor but the idea, like the creatures, need to be treated with due caution

The study was reported by the BBC as follows:

Bees and ants are true team players unlike other creatures who seek safety in numbers for selfish reasons, according to researchers. Scientists from Edinburgh and Oxford Universities used mathematical models to study “swarm behaviour”.

In some co-operative groups of animals – known as superorganisms – members are closely related, and work together to ensure their shared genetic material is passed on, the researchers concluded. In other groups they perform a policing role, for instance in honey bee hives where worker bees destroy any eggs not laid by the queen to ensure the queen’s offspring survive.

Dr Andy Gardner, from the University of Edinburgh, said:

“We often see animals appearing to move in unison, such as bison or fish. However, what looks like a team effort is in fact each animal jostling to get to the middle of the group to evade predators. By contrast, an ant nest or a beehive can behave as a united organism in its own right. In a beehive, the workers are happy to help the community, even to die, because the queen carries and passes on their genes.
However, superorganisms are quite rare, and only exist when the internal conflict within a social group is suppressed – so we cannot use this term, for example, to describe human societies.”

The findings, funded by the Royal Society, are published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.

Dangerous idea: treat with caution

Why is this such a potentially dangerous idea? Mainly because it can blur the lines between scientific observation and speculation which becomes accepted as scientifically proved fact. My ‘summary of a summary’ extracted one important aspect of the study, and maybe even then readers, may not have picked it up.

What were the scientists studying? Ants and bees? Well, no, not really. They were studying mathematical models of swarm behaviours. And that’s important to remember.

Ants bees and beliefs

I have been a long-time supporter of studies of animal behaviour in the interest of understanding human behaviours. I take the view knowledge of all animal behaviours, including our own, can provide ideas (‘theories’) of practical significance.

But when such efforts are made, we must be vary careful to understand that a metaphor is a mapping of reality. It’s hard sometimes to realize how much we rely on metaphors. As someone pointed out, ‘the map is not the territory’.

A mathematical model reveals relationships between mathematical variables. In this case, the mathematical relationships are connected with social concepts such as ‘swarming’, ‘selfishness’, ‘leadership’ and ‘team work’.

In explaining the results, the scientists find themselves resorting to language like this

In a beehive, the [workers] are [happy] to [help the community], even to die, because the queen carries and passes on their genes. However, [superorganisms] are quite rare, and only exist when the [internal conflict within a social group is suppressed] – so we [cannot use this term], for example, to describe human societies.

A complex mix of analytic statements and assumptions are present in just one sentence from the BBC report above. Students of leadership should reflect carefully on such a statement, in the interests of ‘map testing’ and maybe ‘map making’.


You can see the original text here of Gardner and Graf’s paper.

A Brief history of leadership

October 21, 2007

glass_spiral_staircase.jpgLeaders and leadership continue to capture the public imagination. But there have been few attempts to trace the history of leadership to its earliest manifestations. What can be learned from the hard-wired behaviors of insects, the territorialism of reptiles, the disciplinary schooling of horses, and the social capitalism of chimpanzees?

This post [under development] is based on a presentation to Manchester Business School Alumni in October 2007. You can access the presentation entitled A brief history of leadership here, [accessed via my slideshare powerpoints. Be patient. It does load, in about 15 seconds from my PC! ].

The lecture sets out the case for learning about today’s leadership dilemmas by reference to animal behaviors. This is in some ways a well-trodden path since Desmond Morris reminded us of our kinship with other animals as a naked ape.

The approach has to beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism (attributing human behaviors to other animals). These challenges have been examined by John Stodart Kennedy as the new anthropomorphism.

These scholars have continued the debate on instinctive behaviors that followed the work of pioneering ethologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Drawing on these sources, the lecture argues that our modern concepts of leadership draw on residual ancient forms. Furthermore, our shared concepts and folk-memories contribute to universal archetypes.

It is suggested that as humans, through consciousness and learning, we become and create ‘the leaders we deserve’

Other points of interest: By re-evaluating the role of instinct in behaviors that are considered to exhibit leadership qualities, we approach the ancient question of whether leaders are born or made.

To go more deeply

In preparing the lecture, I drew heavily on the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly The Ancestor’s Tale.

Anyone with strong creationist beliefs will probably have problems with the Darwinist treatment.