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Consensus Decision Making in Eusocial Organisms

During a chaotic senior year of college, I found religion in bees. Ants held the deepest truth I had ever known, and scientific papers on slime molds (a multinucleate amoeboid plasmodia) triggered existential crises. In the spring of 2015, I wandered around Earlham College in a hazy metacognitive state, looking at how groups and ideas interact through a stolen and unabashedly misappropriated scientific lens. As I tried to pin down wily concepts for my biology comprehensive exams, finish out my service scholarship program, and manage living in an intentional community of nine people, I found a strange manic solace in the decision-making processes of eusocial organisms.

Despite my stress-induced delirium, the question that plagues all college seniors did not leave me respite: “What next?” echoed around my head throughout the semester. Due to a timely recruiting visit, I found the answer to be Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), a radical year of faith and service that fit into my buzzing worldview.

Superorganisms

The crux of my existentialism lay in the similarity of decision-making processes in natural organisms. In studies of slime molds, bees, ants, brains, and primate groups, I saw scientists documenting how once a buildup of evidence reaches a critical threshold, a choice is made that impacts the livelihood of an entire codependent group.

The terms “superorganism” and/or “eusocial” describe a particular type of life strategy of some species that involves a division of labor and extremely high social cooperation. Eusocial insects (some ants, bees, and termites) are considered to be superorganisms because many worker individuals do not reproduce individually. Rather, one sole delegate—the queen—carries out reproduction for the entire colony. The term superorganism denotes an understanding that though there are many bees in a hive, it is functionally a single reproductive entity. The bond of a eusocial organism is fierce because it is a group of mutually dependent (and genetically identical) individuals. They have a single, common goal: survive and reproduce.

Nest Site Decisions—A Consensus

There is a joy I find in nest site decisions that I will share with anyone who asks, and with many who don’t. A eusocial insect group’s decision on nest site beautifully highlights a moment in which the colony relies on the transfer of knowledge from a few informed individuals to the clueless colony in order to create an accurate, cohesive movement vital to their success. This phenomenon provides a unique area of study in decision making, allowing for insights on universal themes, such as speed-accuracy tradeoffs in a decentralized system.

Small, rock-dwelling ants (Temnothorax albipennis) often have their homes disrupted. When a rock is overturned, scouts rush out into the world to inspect potential new sites. A worker finds an opportunity, runs back to the colony, and recruits another individual to come look at her discovery. (This is called tandem running.) The recruit looks at the site and makes an assessment. If she, too, finds it to be exciting, she’ll run back and begin recruiting. This is a positive feedback loop of information. Once there is a critical threshold of excited individuals (a quorum) running back and forth between the old site and the potential new home, the entire nest emigrates to this new, happy home.

Similarly, honey bees (Apis mellifera) recruit their sisters to new hive sites through an extremely cute method of communication called “waggle dancing.” The higher the quality of the potential new home, the more enthusiastically the bees waggle their abdomens and, consequently, the faster they are able to recruit and hit that threshold for emigration.

A vital aspect of these decision-making processes is that scouts recruit other workers to a site, but all scouts actually inspect the potential site for themselves before becoming recruiters. Through this amazing process, individual assessments are translated through the group to make a collective decision.

My Recruitment into QVS

In the midst of my stressful final semester, I was in charge of trying to dispel an alarming sense of apathy that had overtaken the Bonner Scholars service program. At a party I attended, a freshman asked me in a slurring drunken stupor: “Do you think Bonner makes meaning out of meaningless things?” I was incensed by this question and felt the need to bring to the attention of my peers the fact that they had skin in the game: finding meaning in service is the job of the individuals involved. The structure of the Bonner program existed for them to use and personalize, not to exploit for its financial benefits and then bemoan. I stood in front of some 50 pairs of eyeballs and asked questions, trying to spur communication and a sense of responsibility for the state of things. There was some lack of oversight going on, but that meant there was room to reclaim the narrative.

That night Ross Hennessy, QVS’s Philadelphia coordinator and part-time recruiter, was sitting in the back of the room. He got in front of our agitated group and began talking about why we might choose to be in community. Do we want to be a part of a system that is self-affirming, or something that is challenging? He lifted up the value of being confronted by people you love, and I saw the hum of bees in that idea. Feedback loops circled through my neuron system, and I fairly well made up my mind that the QVS program was going to be the right decision for me.

Quaker Voluntary Service: My Household Is a Superorganism

The cohesion of an ant group (and most social groups) is genetic, but the interconnection I found in Quaker Voluntary Service is ideological. I lived with seven other people for one year in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. We all worked at nonprofits in the city, coming home at night to cook dinner, do our chores, talk at length, and sleep.

In our “nest” there was a common commitment to the process we would use to explore our year together, and inescapable proximity to cooperative ideas and information sharing. I saw our communal narrative as a collective decision. If I tell you a story of injustice, am I not recruiting you into a different worldview? During my year in QVS I found that, in unbeknownst alliance with my admiration for eusocial insects, Quakerism theologically encourages individual assessment and transfer of information to the group.

Our house was often in conflict with competing ideas and assessments of what to do in order to live into sustained movement toward a better world. How much “self-care” is needed? What are the boundaries of community? How much space do men take up in this group? We pushed and shoved, ideologically. Sometimes, we agreed. I found beauty in the averaging, resilience in the skirmish. The divinity in my year of simple living existed in the positive and negative feedback of my housemates.

Speed vs. Accuracy Tradeoff: Quakers and Racial Justice

For house-hunting ants, harsh conditions during nest emigration make speed essential. One group of scientists found that quorum thresholds, or the number of individuals needed to make a decision, are lowered in Leptothorax albipennis colonies exposed to wind, and that these ants were less discriminating between sites. In contrast, in the presence of calm weather, the control groups were able to choose the best site at their leisure.

We cannot talk about consensus decision making without recognizing the excruciation found in hours-long deliberation over a collective choice. Quakers try to incorporate all opinions, giving each equal weight and recognition, and that can really take forever. This is laughable when we consider the question of which color to paint the walls, but can be problematic for a more serious decision, such as how to respond to racial injustice.

I have heard negative experiences trickle through the grapevine of my housemates. While advocating for racial justice within the Religious Society of Friends, they have come into cultural clashes with larger systems of Quakers, some of who cry out against movement because it is “not in their language”: not in the language of peace, inclusion, and tolerance. There seems to be a desire within Quakerism to choose the best way to move forward calmly, deliberately, accurately, and at leisure. When I told a black woman Friend that I was attending the White Privilege Conference, she responded with something along the lines of “Why do you white people need to keep talking to yourselves in rooms? Just do something!”

At the same time I was studying ants and their choices, I came upon an article that was being read by a classmate in a women’s and gender studies class: Audre Lorde’s reflections on anger. Her first example of how her voice as a black woman had been delegitimized by white women (even those “on her side”) is pertinent to the predicament of the larger structures of Quakerism today, and reflects a speed vs. accuracy tradeoff we face as an American society:

I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.” But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?

Lorde states later: “Anger is loaded with information and energy.” In the long negotiations of peaceful white folks, we are not able to hear the information and energy of the oppressed. A few Quakers of color and some white allies are unduly burdened in trying to drag the body to the living edge of radical faith. I am worried that Quakers will deliberate for too long as they wait in silence for the correct choice, all the while perhaps ignoring those they “cannot hear” due to harshness or the threat it poses to comfort. There is insidious white supremacy inherent in a religion largely comprised of the input of white individuals, and it often manifests as systemic complacency. This occurs while maintaining a high-minded narrative of being on the correct side of history.

There are some times when it is important to be quick, and other times when time is needed to be precisely accurate. In our current, stressful sociopolitical environment, it is necessary to be swift in listening to the energy of the individuals in our group who are angry, who need our help. I hope that the larger Religious Society of Friends can coalesce around the choice to support people of color however they can, to admit to systemic white supremacy, and to act in accordance with anti-racist principles.

The Relationship Between the Individual and the Group

Quakerism has been an important structure for me to learn in and from. I still live with housemates from QVS, and I feel clued into something larger than myself through my relationships with them. This household of former QVS participants still feels right to me in a way that the entirety of Quakerism and its social baggage does not yet. I have confidence that somehow the radical love and commitment to justice I find in my house is being translated and manifested into society through our individual efforts. I believe in the power and energy of an idea, like a waggle dance, to recruit. In my existential world of ants and bees, ideas don’t even necessarily live entirely in our brains or bodies but rather somewhere in the space between tandem running and Spirit. I have faith that, despite all odds, we will choose a more inclusive and just society than exists today.

Barbara Dale graduated from Earlham College in Indiana with a major in biology in 2015. She participated in Quaker Voluntary Service in Philadelphia, Pa., from 2015 to 2016, and currently works in development for a Quaker values-based affordable housing organization. She lives cooperatively with seven humans in West Philadelphia.


Posted in: Features, Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem

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One Response to Consensus Decision Making in Eusocial Organisms

  1. Viv Hawkins June 1, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    Barbara, wow! I’m loving what you’ve written! The writing, linkages, and conclusions are all wonderful.
    For several years now, I’ve been interested in the aspect of eusocality that applies to care of an interdependent collective’s well-being, the tension between community/ herding/ groupthink and individuation to allow evolution, and the ways groups can operate at developmental levels which exceed that of some of their members. I’ve been finding some answers in bio-psycho-social models and experiments in group spiritual accountability.

    I’m on Facebook (with a graphic describing slime-mold on my page), live in Philadelphia, and would love to connect. -Viv Hawkins

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