Tag Archives: 21st century

Review: The Perfect Swarm

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Len Fisher is an honorary research fellow in the department of physics, University of Bristol, England. He has authored several popular science books.

Genre: This popular science book is outside our normal range for book reviews, but it is summarized here because of its fascinating implications for leadership.

Overview: The chief value of this popular science book is its brief, yet full-orbed introduction to the burgeoning science of swarm intelligence, also called “the science of complexity.” To define this theme in the author’s words:

“Swarm behavior becomes swarm intelligence when a group can use it to solve a problem collectively, in a way that the individuals within the group cannot.” (p. 10, loc. 224)

“The modern science of complexity has shown that collective behavior in animal groups (especially those of insects such as locusts, bees, and ants) emerges from a set of very simple rules of interaction between neighbors.” (p. 2, loc. 124)

Meat: The applications of these studies are briefly summarized in ch. 10. I have grouped the spiritual applications of this book under four headings:

Swarm Evangelism:

“Groups that use swarm intelligence need no leader, and they have no central planning.” (p. 10, loc. 230) Similarly, the Church of the Spirit in Acts 15 had no pope or king—only a simple set of rules and the sanctifying power of God’s Word and Spirit.

“When networking, find, use, or establish those few long-range links that bring clusters together into a small world. . . .” (p. 168, loc. 2508)

Alphaeus Hardy, who had lost his dream of preaching, led one Japanese boy to Christ after the boy had stowed away on his ship. Joseph Neesima then went back to Japan to glorify Christ among the Japanese.

Faithful Discipleship:

Fisher quotes Barabási’s Linked to the effect that exponential growth is “the inevitable consequence of self-organization due to local decisions made by [individuals].” In other words, the only plan in a self-propelling movement is not just for new members to bring others, but for each successive generation to decide independently that the movement is worthwhile (leading to exponential growth (on a power law) as long as the exponent is more than 1).

Church Planting:

A key idea in biblical church planting methods is the “person of peace.” But networking science says you cannot place the whole burden of a movement on one hub: “Don’t rely on persuading someone with influence to pass the message on. It is far better to try for a critical mass of early adopters—people who will take the idea or product up, after a single exposure.” (p. 168, loc. 2516) Even if a person of peace is found, we should hold off the celebration: a “critical mass of early adopters” is probably the inflection point (or turning point) that we should be aiming for.

Invisible Leadership:

“Lead from the inside (if possible with a coterie of like-minded friends or colleagues), but take care not to let other members of the group know what you are doing. Just head in the direction that you want to go, and leave it to the laws of the swarm to do the rest.” (p. 34, loc. 592)

“The leadership of small groups [that is, a few leaders] can engage a whole army.” (p. 36, loc. 605)

“Just a few informed individuals can lead a much larger group of uninformed individuals simply by moving faster and in the appropriate direction.” (p. 30, loc. 533)

Fisher explains this as an informational cascade, in which the bees follow three rules: avoidance, alignment, and attraction. The larger the group, the fewer leaders needed in proportion. (p. 30; also p. 32, loc. 565)

“We can lead a group simply by having a goal, so long as the others in the group do not have different goals.” (p. 32, loc. 558)

“Members of a group can be totally unrecognized as leaders by those whom they are leading.” (p. 32, loc. 563)

There are also many Scriptural metaphors in the book:

Fisher mentions that locust plagues when dense enough, transition into “highly aligned marching”—an army of locusts “marches” in Joel 2:7. (p. 24, loc. 435)

Fish in schools have only two rules: “follow the fish in front (if there is one) and keep pace with the fish beside you.” (p. 13, loc. 273) Fish have been symbolic of Christians since the earliest times because of the many New Testament stories about fishing. Jacob also prays for Joseph to be “as fishes do increase” (Gen. 48:16). Fish, in this context, mean multiplication!

Solomon admonishes us to “consider the ant” (Prov. 6:6). Ants also operate using swarm intelligence, something mentioned throughout the book.