Whispering, Murmuring, Swarming, Pulsating Wonder

English: The flock of starlings acting as a sw...

a murmuration of starlings

At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync. It pervades nature at every scale from the nucleus to the cosmos…thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash in unison, without any leader or cue from the environment. Trillions of electrons march in lockstep in a superconductor, enabling electricity to flow…In the solar system, gravitational synchrony can eject huge boulders out of the asteroid belt and towards Earth…Even our bodies are symphonies of rhythm, kept alive by the relentless, coordinated firing of thousands of pacemaker cells in our hearts.  In every case, these feats of synchrony occur spontaneously, almost as if nature had an eerie yearning for order. (1)

Synchrony is a spontaneous tendency towards united order and it is the most pervasive drive in all of nature.  As a phenomenon, it occurs right across the board – from inanimate objects to complex organisms like human beings.

We wring our hands in despair when we see the difficulties around us in the world, positive that we can never learn to work – or even live – together in unity.

And yet metronomes, starlings, pacemaker cells and schools of fish can spontaneously work together with ease.


If this is a natural condition, then why do we, sophisticated as we are, have such huge difficulty accessing it?

If we increased our powers of empathy and extended our understanding of love would that increase the ‘harmony’ between us?

Are we somehow getting in our own way?

And if so, how exactly are we doing this?

This is an amazing – and totally beautiful – video.  Enjoy.


(1) Steven Strogatz, Sync.

All Together Now

Reciprocity is more than just simple give and take – it’s about co-creating environments and conditions that work for all involved.

There are many examples of reciprocity in nature – take the hermit crab and the anemone, for example.

The hermit crab lives in vacated shells of whelks or other mollusc.  One species carries a large pink anemone on its shell so that when octopi or fish – who like to feed on the hermit crab – approach, the anemone shoots out it brilliantly coloured tentacles, and stings the intending predators.

This is a good example of living co-operation as the crab returns the compliment to the anemone, which feeds on the droppings and discarded food of the crab. When the crab needs to move to a larger home, it gently detaches the anemone and takes it along.

In human society, just as in nature, reciprocity creates an actual environment.  Once this environment is created all manner of new and wonderful things can happen and the co-operation we need to learn in order to survive and prosper will get a real chance to take hold.

Apart from the obvious, the difference between us and hermit crabs with their anemone companions is that we have free will.  We get to decide what to do, and in our efforts to do what is best for ourselves we can think that acting only from self-interest will be the most advantageous.  This isn’t true.

Like the anemones and the crabs we share our planet.  Whether we like it or not we are interconnected.  As well as being undeniably cousins according to our genome, we are all now living in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller.  We are very much a hugely extended family, living together in the same place, interconnected even when we don’t get on.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just work out how to get along?

The Ethic of Reciprocity

The Ethic of Reciprocity – also known as The Golden Rule – is a simple but powerful concept and one that lies at the heart of all religions.

We all know a version of it.

  • Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. (Bahá’í Faith)
  • This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. (Brahmanism)
  • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.(Buddhism)
  • And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.(Christianity)
  • Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.(Confuscianism)
  • This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Hinduism)
  • …thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Judaism )
  • None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. (Islam)
  • Do not kill or injure your neighbor, for it is not him that you injure, you injure yourself. But do good to him, therefore add to his days of happiness as you add to your own. Do not wrong or hate your neighbor, for it is not him that you wrong, you wrong yourself. But love him, for Moneto loves him also as he loves you. (Shawnee Indian)
  • As thou deemest thyself, so deem others. (Sikhism)
  • Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.(Zoroastrianism)

It’s like the story of the long spoons – (see yesterday’s post) – if instead of seeing what we can get from the world, we train ourselves to be willing to give, then we create environments of reciprocal goodness which in turn can blossom into – well – heaven on earth.


Village Earth…

Everybody is talking about globalization.  People love it, hate it, fear it, worry about it –  reactions to globalization are – ironically – as individual as the people having the reaction.

We talk about globalization when we worry about the ‘free market’, the massive changes created by the Internet and telecommunications, Americanization, Islamization, the World Bank, national sovereignty, cultural identity…

We’re afraid that the shrinking world in which we live, with fewer and fewer ways to control the movement of goods, services and people – and almost no way to control the movement of ideas – will mean our cultures and languages and identities will disappear into some big, scary melting pot where everything will lose its vibrancy and come out a bad, bland shade of beige.

Resisting the ever increasing movement of society towards becoming a global village is a waste of time.  It’s like resisting the tide and the wind – impossible – but like the tide and the wind we can learn to accept the natural movement of humanity towards unity and harness it’s power to help us.

Village Earth – our home – let’s get together and work out how to unleash it’s potential.


Photograph – Ancient Hopi Village of Wopi – Terry Eiler – U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-1928

(Thanks to Pat for the namexxxx!!!)

The Trouble with Genocide

The trouble with our definition of the crime of genocide is that it doesn’t go far enough. 

Don’t get me wrong, the coining of the term genocide in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, was an important conceptual advance for humanity.

Lemkin combined two root words – genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and the Latin suffix –cide (which means to kill) – thus creating the word genocide as a description of the deliberate and systematic destruction of any ethnic, religious, racial or national group.

It was also an important advance for humanity when, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

The definition and outlawing of genocide was largely undertaken in the 1940s in the wake of WWII.  It was a hugely important departure and a giant leap of understanding. But now we need to redefine it.  Now we need to come to an understanding of genocide which will help us deal with the needs – and crimes – of our time.

Because the trouble with genocide is that our definition of it is based on the notion of otherness. It is an altruistic notion of otherness.  A tolerant and well-meaning notion of otherness but a notion of otherness all the same.

As a consequence, many atrocities are still taking place in the world because there is international disagreement as to whether or not the crimes constitute genocide.  Very often these situations are recognised as genocide when it is too late to intervene and save the victims.

We need to move towards a situation where we see the entire human race as one genos – one family, one tribe, one race.  Instead of otherness we need to develop our ability to understand and operate a system of oneness.

If we do that, then whenever anyone is targeted for harm as a result of his or her individual belief, race, background or nationality – we will define it as genocide and no longer need to waste time with semantic arguments and bureaucracy.

All crimes against humanity – our family – will concern us.  All injustice.  All suffering.

The nobility of man and his spiritual development will lead him in the future to such a position that no individual could enjoy eating his food or resting at home while knowing that there was one person somewhere in the world without food or shelter. (2)


Related articles

(1) http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext.htm

(2) ‘Abdu’l Baha – quoted in Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, vol. 3, p. 126

Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (2)

We are more than just a collection of cells and matter – but our physical reality may be better designed for unity and cooperation than we imagine. Given the day that’s in it,  I thought the video below might be a good way to honour the many millions of people who have suffered – and still suffer – as a result of our collective failure to learn how to live together.

Jeremy Rifkin describes here how, contrary to what we believe about our species, we are physically designed to work together.  It’s very informative (and mostly about the brain!)

How Can We Live Together? Part II

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game developed in the 1950s as an exercise in game theory and military strategy.  The scenario of the game is as follows:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. There is insufficient evidence for a conviction, so, the prisoners are separated and each is offered the same deal.

The Dilemma

  • If you testify against your buddy and he remains silent – he gets 10 years in jail – you walk free.
  • If you testify against your buddy and he testifies against you – you both get 5 years prison-time.
  • If you both remain silent  – you both spend 6 months in jail on minor charges.  

Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent.  Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act? 

In a game where there is a known number of rounds the only way to win the game is to defect. However, in the 1980’s, political scientist and complexity theorist, Robert Axlerod, decided to create an experiment based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. He modified it slightly insofar as it was to be repeated an unknown number of times and thus, it became what is known as the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Tit-for-Tat as Cooperation

Axelrod organized a computer tournament to which people were invited to submit programs encoding different strategies for playing the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. He published the results in his 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation.

This process simulates survival of the fittest…The analysis of the tournament results indicate that there is a lot to be learned about coping in an environment of mutual power. Even expert strategists from political science, sociology, economics, psychology, and mathematics made the systematic errors of being too competitive for their own good, not being forgiving enough, and being too pessimistic about the responsiveness of the other side…there is a single property which distinguishes the relatively high-scoring entries from the relatively low-scoring entries. This is the property of being nice, which is to say never being the first to defect.1

The winner of the tournament (and most tournaments for over 20 years) was one of the simplest programmes entered. It was a programme called Tit-for-Tat. Axlerod’s research found that cooperation was simply the best strategy – even for emotionless computer interactions – if you wanted to win the game.

Cooperation as a Winning Strategy

According to Axlerod’s research there are a number of features that make cooperation the winning strategy and these features hold true across the board whether computers or people are playing the game.

  • Increase ‘the shadow of the future’ – Axlerod found that when players expect to meet again they have a bigger investment in not alienating their opponents.
  • Have high levels of reciprocity. Small teams can prevail as long as they act in a reciprocal way.  This includes not cooperating when others are uncooperative but being ‘forgiving’ as soon as a willingness to cooperate returns. He found that reciprocity not aggression provided the best protection against exploitative strategies.
  • And finally, in general, Axlerod’s study suggested that there was no ‘best rule’ that existed independently of others – all strategies were most usefully worked out as a response to the others involved – just as is the case in all reciprocal environments.

Cooperation on the Battle Front

Axlerod didn’t confine his studies to computer or other simulated environments but shows how these ‘rules’ exist in the real world.  He contends, for example, that the famous incidents of cross-side cooperation during WWI show many of the same features.  Axelrod says that, the ‘live and let live’ arrangements that spontaneously developed in these instances, happened because the same small units faced each other in immobile stand-off trench warfare for extended periods of time. This meant that they had a much more sustained relationship than would be possible in a situation of mobile warfare. From this, a sort of status quo grew up which governed the behaviour of each side and included rituals and ethics.

Cooperation first emerged spontaneously in a variety of contexts, such as restraint in attacking the distribution of enemy rations, a pause during the first Christmas in the trenches, and a slow resumption of fighting after bad weather made sustained combat almost impossible. These restraints quickly evolved into clear patterns of mutually understood behavior, such as two-for-one or three-for-one retaliation for actions that were taken to be unacceptable.2

So if cooperation is the winning strategy even in computer logic – why don’t we cooperate more? It could be because we are not really sure how to proceed. We have plenty of experience of acting in competitive, adversarial and selfish ways but not as much experience of cooperation.

All of which means that we are more or less in uncharted territory if we wish to progress as a human race in a reciprocal and cooperative way. So if we treat this situation as we would treat the approach of any uncharted territory, we might usefully first look for maps that will help us to find our bearings as we ‘settle’ these virgin territories.

How Can We Live Together? – Part III – Believing is Seeing – How Our Beliefs Influence Our View of Reality.

(1) Game Theory and the Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axlerod, From Gaia to Selfish Genes, Ed.Connie Barlow, M.I.T. Press, 1998.

(2) Chapter 4 – pp 73-87, The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axlerod, Basic Books, 1985