Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lessons in discovery and democracy from fellow organisms

If I am reading her right, in "Channeling the Microbiome" a recent article in The Scientist, Sarah Greene suggests that horizontal gene transfer can be seen as an analogy to information sharing among scientists, and other human beings, and that we might learn from our micro-cousins.
An interview with developmental biologist Peter A. Lawrence of Cambridge University, entitled “The Heart of Research is Sick,” was recently published in the UK magazine Lab Times. Lawrence points out that at its core, science must be about the discovery process, which may not be selected for in a highly competitive environment that rewards the most aggressive individuals and tends to diminish the efforts of younger scientists and women.
In NPR (Morning Edition, May 24, 2011) piece on how bees select a site for a new hive  ("Nature's Secret: Why Honey Bees are Better Politicians than Humans") Robert Krulwich reveals a method of persuasion that causes individual bees to investigate the suitability of proposed sites that eventually leads to them picking the best site, essentially by consensus.
Each scout's dance tells the other bees how to fly to the site — this is done by "waggle dancing," a figure dance that gives bees directions. And if a bee really likes the site, she will dance her directions over and over and over, literally hundreds of times. That way, more and more of her sister scouts see the dance, know where to go, and can fly off and check for themselves.

If the site is ho-hum, the second wave of bees will do a ho-hum, say, 10-repetition dance. But if the site is spectacular — high off the ground, narrow opening, facing the right direction, lots of honey storage space inside — then they will give it a spectacular, say, 300-round dance, so more scouts will know where to go. If they like the site, pretty soon everybody is doing the same dance: Let's call it "The Elm Tree" dance.

This is how bees "vote;" they dance themselves into a consensus.
Sounds like fun, and an excellent model. One wonders why the purportedly most intelligent species finds it so difficult to make good decisions.