Decision-Making in Animal Communities – Remodelling Global Cooperation

“There is a way,  if we allow ourselves to be guided by nature’s optimism and nature’s wisdom.”

Jay Harman, The Shark’s Paintbrush, p. 289.

In this blogpost, we will explore ways that nature can provide inspiration for The Global Challenges Prize 2017: A New Shape. We will focus the attention on swarm intelligence.

Bees use real-time negotiation to make decisions. Humans often have a less accurate approach to making predictions and to decision making. We use polls and votes, we polarise things.”Instead of finding common ground, they force us to entrench in predictions and make it harder for us to find the best answer for the group.” Louis Rosenberg

Organisations like the UN are getting bigger and this is problematic. Since the formation of the UN in 1945, the UN system, or the UN families, have added issues that they are dealing with, for example, sustainability and climate change.

You can see an interesting sketch below from 1943 by Franklin Roosevelt of the UN original three branches: The Four Policemen, an executive branch, and an international assembly of forty UN member states.


Photo By Franklin D. Roosevelt – Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum, Public Domain,

“Organizations can’t keep growing the way we structure them today.”

Tamsin Wolley-Barker compares organisations to dinosaurs. Dinosaurs needed huge bones to support their weight and the more weight, the more bones, and the more weight. In the end, the dinosaurs were too big.

“In regards to relative bone strength, the larger animals are at a much greater risk of breaking their bones than the smaller animals. The likelihood that a broken bone will cut an animal’s life short is a strong possibility for the larger animals. This possibility of broken bones affecting the animal’s survival thus becomes a limitation on the size of the largest animals.” From “The problem with big dinosaurs.

Management is like a skeleton that supports an organisation so that it does not collapse. But when an organisation grows the cost of management is escalating, which could be problematic.

Also, a  more worrying trend when an organisation grows is that the ability to change quickly declines.

Nature uses hierarchies all the time as a way to prevent things from changing.  Animal societies have dominance hierarchy. However, research suggests that cooperation is impeded among chimpanzees as compared to cottontop tamarins. Chimpanzees live in steep and linear hierarchies in contrast to the more relaxed form of hierarchies that cottontop tamarins use.

Hierarchies may be important and there are ways to build a better hierarchy but if you want to build an organisation that can easily adapt to change, it is not an optimal structure. Hierarchies limits growth. Thus, to re-envision global governance for the challenges that face us in the 21st century, we need to develop new models.

Can animals provide any inspiration for new models of global cooperation?


Photo Subith Premdas

Teams of ants, termites or bees are often used as inspiration to explore how organisations work. Ants termites and bees are organisms with colonies consisting of sometimes millions of individuals. Yet together these work as a single organism. The labour is divided and one individual is helpless and cannot survive for long. By working together these organisms create abundance in harsh environments. They find a way of using things that often are overlooked by other creatures.

These animals use an open-ended structure that is dynamic and which allows them to quickly respond to changes in the environment. Yet, they lack a commander. They survive, or at least appears to, without making any forecasts and budgets. Instead, there is a smooth adaption to change, where all the individual creatures are contributing. The interactions between ants, termites and bees might be simple, nevertheless, together they can solve difficult problems.

Social insects have the following characteristics:

  • flexibility
  • robustness
  • self-organization

Social organisms can quickly adapt to change and even when one or more individuals in the group fail to achieve the task, the group can still perform the task. Finally, the activities performed by the group are neither centrally controlled nor or they locally supervised.

Using this approach to decision-making as inspiration to design global cooperation may indeed be a challenge.

A challenge, fun and above all perhaps a  necessary approach. We all know deep in our hearts that we face many problems. The future viability of our race is in danger. Nature constantly reinvents itself. We need to reinvent global cooperation with a similar irresistible optimism.


Photo By Neptuul – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


The Thinking of Dolphins – Thinkibility Nibble


Is this an example of creative thinking? And does this mean that dolphins can think? If yes, can other animals think?

When given the hand signal to “innovate,” Hector and Han know to dip below the surface and blow a bubble, or vault out of the water, or dive down to the ocean floor, or perform any of the dozen or so other maneuvers in their repertoire—but not to repeat anything they’ve already done during that session. Incredibly, they usually understand that they’re supposed to keep trying some new behavior each session.

Bolton presses her palms together over her head, the signal to innovate, and then puts her fists together, the sign for “tandem.” With those two gestures, she has instructed the dolphins to show her a behavior she hasn’t seen during this session and to do it in unison.” National Geographic

As a result of our challenge (see this post) to pose a question Google could not answer we typed: ”Can animals think?” into our search engines.

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that we believe that thinking is an interactive process between the body and the surrounding. We disagree with the intuitive idea – in our opinion – that thinking takes place somewhere in the body, mostly assumed to be in our brains.

Diving deeper in this assumption, it seems logical to assume that thinking is evolutionary. The surroundings in which humans have survived have changed dramatically throughout centuries. Do animals also show  signs of thinking as they adapt to and survive to changing conditions? Animals will probably do their best thinking when it serves their purposes, not when we ask them to or indeed when we are looking. Do we really know what we are looking for?

We hypothesized that when human interact in different environments, groups of humans think differently.

This could be on explanation to why so many cultures have radical different ways of life. However, it might be that all humans have the same meta-thinking strategy – the way we change our thinking in relation to the environment.

Another assumption is that animals do “think”, but their “thinking” may be different from ours and different species may “think” using different modes and ways of communication. There may also be fundamental differences between the thinking of a gorilla thinks and a sea slug. Today, many scientists believe that some animals have the brain power to understand new situations, make decisions, and plan ahead.

If there is not a fundamental difference in human and animal thinking, but the differences are merely caused by different interactions with the environment, we could test our hypothesis with an animal that lives in radical different circumstances than human.

We made a list of commonalities and differences between human and dolphins that are known for their intelligent and social behavior. National Geography has an insightful article about the Intelligence of Dolphins, go here to read it.

Of course, there are a lot of other difficult questions.

  • How do we know that animals or a human think?
  • Do humans think in language?
  • Do we dream in language?
  • Some people who are fluent in more than two languages may  think in different languages.They may use different language in different situations. How do bi-lingual or multilingual people know which languages to use to get grip on the world in different situations?
  • How do we know that dolphins can think?
  • Can they think because they can communicate, coordinate their actions, or swim in new innovations patterns?

To learn more about this subject, use two or more search engines and asked “Can animals think?”

Evaluate the searches and think about if reading the information and ideas have changed your mind. Why has it changed your mind? Or why has it not changed your mind?

Why is this a good question to type into a search engine? Why is it not a good question? Do search engines really have an answer to this question? And what happens if you think they do?

Photo: Comfreak

World Thinkers’ Ideas – Look for Similarities

Many of us would be offended if someone calls us an animal. But why does animals have such a bad reputation?

Frans de Waal, primatologist and ethologist, says that part of the problem is the direction of thinking that has been used in research. The focus has been on characteristics that are missing rather than present in animals. When you actively search for aspects that are missing, it is easy to overlook aspects that points to similarities.

Thinking should provide a rounded view of the problem or situation. By looking for similarities, Frans de Waal has made several fascinating discoveries. Many of these discoveries would have been difficult, or even impossible, if he had not changed the focus. Frans de Waal noticed how many animals cooperate and share foods, and console each other. His thinking has challenged the prevalent idea that humans and other animals are primarily motivated by self-interest – the Homo economicus view.

The skill to identify differences and similarities is vital to receive a balanced view. Yet, it is tempting to believe that a certain viewpoint is the ultimate option. Even if we assume or believe that there are differences between humans and other animals, this idea should not prevent us from actively searching for similarities. New insights into problems are achieved by shifting focus. Often metaphors and analogies are used to actively explore similarities.

The thinking instruction to comparesomething involves looking for similarities and differences. But comparing certain things like humans and animals are often difficult. Humans are humans and animals are animals. We have to ask questions such as in what way they are different and similar.

The article Morals without God will give you further insight into Frans de Waal’s ideas.

Photo: Relaxing

World Thinkers’ Ideas- Lawyer for the Animals

What does it feel like to have no voice?

Ethical values are important for the Swiss lawyer Antoine Goetschel. He represents abused animals in the court. The clients are mostly dogs but he also represents the interests of other pets, farm animals, and wildlife. Since the 1970s, Swiss animals have been more protected in legislation than animals anywhere else in the world. In Switzerland, you have to take a four-hour course before you buy a dog. The Swiss law says that social species such as hamsters and goldfish need companionship and there is a law that specifies how you put down a sick fish.

Antoine Goetschel became interested in animal rights at the age of 23. He lost his voice for a couple of days after an accident.  This incident lead to insights into the distress animals are subjected to by not being able to express themselves. He realised what it feels like to have no one to speak for you.

Taking the view of other people and animals (OPV)  into account can lead to important insights. Considering the world from the perspective of someone else, challenges you to reflect on the benefits and negative aspects of different circumstances. Defending cute animals may be easy but we need to defend all animals, says Antoine Goetschel. Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes is never easy. When the other mind belongs to an animal, it requires more than compassion for the animal to help. Imagination and different ways to trick your mind to breaking old thinking patterns is the first step. Unless you lose your voice, for a day or two, just like Antoine Goetschel.

Getting rid of old ways of thinking about the world is just as important as getting new ideas. Maybe it is even the first necessary step towards getting new ideas.

You may also like this article by Wired Science.

Photo:   Hound Dog by Maggie Smith
By Rainer Ebert from Houston, United States of America [CC-BY-SA-2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons