You’ve probably seen it: a flock of starlings pulsing in the evening sky, swirling this way and that, feinting right, veering left. The flock gets denser, then sparser; it moves faster, then slower; it flies in a beautiful, chaotic concert, as if guided by a secret rhythm.
Biology has a word for this undulating dance: “murmuration.” In a murmuration, each bird sees, on average, the seven birds nearest it and adjusts its own behavior in response. If its nearest neighbors move left, the bird usually moves left. If they move right, the bird usually moves right. The bird does not know the flock’s ultimate destination and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ small alterations, when occurring in rapid sequence, shift the course of the whole, creating mesmerizing patterns. We cannot quite understand it, but we are awed by it. It is a logic that emerges from — is an embodiment of — the network. The behavior is determined by the structure of the network, which shapes the behavior of the network, which shapes the structure, and so on. The stimulus — or information — passes from one organism to the next through this chain of connections.
While much is still mysterious and debated about the workings of murmurations, computational biologists and computer scientists who study them describe what is happening as “the rapid transmission of local behavioral response to neighbors.” Each animal is a node in a system of influence, with the capacity to affect the behavior of its neighbors. Scientists call this process, in which groups of disparate organisms move as a cohesive unit, collective behavior. The behavior is derived from the relationship of individual entities to each other, yet only by widening the aperture beyond individuals do we see the entirety of the dynamic. [Continue reading…]