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Old 01-30-2014, 09:14 PM
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Default Herding Instinct 101

I and "the old Utah gang" (brothers and friends) have been having email discussions about various things including about pets, science, religion, and the like. We've atheists, agnostics, and at least one firm theist in the group, but our discussions have sort of revolved around science. In that context, I asked their thoughts about what follows, and I'm curious if some Polyamory.com folks would also like to sound off on the topic.

We know that many animals tend to congregate in groups, and we have some vaguely scientific-sounding explanations for that behavior. Can any of those explanations be tabulated and even assigned spiritual symbols if we so desire?

Some thoughts that first come to my mind:
  • In a herd, there's better odds of an individual crying out sooner to alert the rest of the herd of a predator.
  • Some members of the herd can keep watch over other members while the other members sleep.
  • In humans, bees, and ants, individuals tend to specialize in certain tasks which makes the whole herd synergetic.
  • Offspring who get separated from their folks can be adopted by other folks nearby.
  • Females can present a united front against violent/murderous males.
  • A large intake of food is more efficiently distributed amongst the herd before any of it can spoil.
  • A united hunting/fighting force can take down a larger animal (for food or protection).
  • It's easier for sex to be distributed away from immediate relatives, reducing chances of inbreeding.
  • Group rules and/or leadership can help the herd act more efficiently as a whole.
The word "herd" can be switched with "troop," "pack," "pride," "flock," "gaggle," "school," "swarm," "hive," "colony," "society," etc.

Even plants "engage" in a type of herding behavior. By growing in close proximity with each other, they seem to have better chances at reproduction. I think it's for similar reasons that a group of same-species spiders will often be found infesting a small area.

Is my list of possible herding advantages incomplete? What about disadvantages? I know the spread of disease is one obvious disadvantage. I know that among humans, a malaise can set in if a human is too individually divergent to fit in comfortably with the rest of the society in which xe finds hirself. And what of herd behavior that could be interpreted as good or bad, advantageous or disadvantageous? What about herd members protecting the weak and sick? What about herd members ganging up on the weak and sick to strengthen the herd overall? I think we are agreed that it is good/advantageous for adults to protect the young offspring.

Anecdotes I have experienced/heard:

Snowbunny knows a thing or three about horses and tells me they often pair up so that one horse can sleep reclining while the other horse stands to keep watch.

This keeping watch behavior seems to happen between Rainee (the cat) and me. She seems to gravitate toward my room and presence, and while not always engaging in snuggling behavior, she does often at least seem to engage in watchful behavior. So while I am engrossed in my PC behavior, Rainee is engaged in looking around and just standing guard if you will. Or heck, or she snoozes on my bed, knowing that I am nearby and awake. So then I am keeping watch over her. At night she often sleeps close to me, as if to suggest she and I might keep watch over each other. And of course Sophie (the dog) obviously sees it as her personal job to be the house alarm system.

Sophie and Rainee both hover around the humans at lunch and dinner but that's obviously in case they'll get little table treats.

When we moved from New Mexico to Washington State, my pdoc had suggested tiny doses of Xanax for Rainee and Sophie, which we tried. It seemed to help them stay mercifully sedated during most of the trip. But at the end of the trip, Rainee came down hard off the Xanax. She paced (wobbled really) to and fro (in the small extended-stay place), crying greatly which was disturbing because she's not generally what you'd call a vocal cat.

I had no idea how to help her and everyone was exhausted after a 15-hour drive that day, but I finally crawled out of bed, and started crawling around with Rainee, wherever she paced. Well amazingly my proximity (and companionship in her scary travels) immediately quieted her down.

Later on she/we discovered other helps. She found her way to a windowsill where she could look outside and that was quite calming for periods of time. She found her way under my bed and that was quite calming for periods of time. When Brother-Husband and Snowbunny went out for supplies and returned with a big litter box for Rainee, I could have sworn the angels sang she was so glad to see it. She must have used it eight times over the course of ninety minutes.

But initially, the first thing that had helped her was just knowing that she wasn't pacing back and forth alone. Herding instinct.

And most of us have seen odd pairings of diverse species. Things like a deer and a large turtle becoming inseparable companions. A household lizard hanging out with, and interacting with, the housecats. A wild deer and a domestic dog, inexplicably deciding to romp and play and chase each other about. A leopard who just killed a mother baboon, proceeding then to adopt the baboon's baby as if it were the leopard's own cub. A dog and an elephant (in a free-range elephant preserve) becoming companions, so inseparable that when the dog was sick and hospitalized, the elephant kept faithful vigil outside the vet hospital, refusing to move until the dog was released, and then the two (dog and elephant alike) showing unmistakeable displays of great joy and affection to see each other.

Often one species will interact symbiotically with another species. Bees spread pollen. Ants milk aphids. And we know that our human bodies are inhabited by quite a range of "foreign-but-beneficial" microbes. Indeed, the human body itself is a large society of diverse kinds of cells that work together to maintain a synergetic whole.

I once saw footage of an elephant herd that had formed some kind of tradition of returning at certain intervals to a spot where some kind of matriarch of that herd had passed away. The elephants seemed to be in some kind of mourning, almost if they wanted to awaken the corpse while sadly knowing they couldn't. So that's a story of group cohesion with an emphasis on affection for an individual member of the herd -- even when the gesture made no evolutionary sense. Their matriarch was dead, and visiting her remains only increased the chance of disease infecting the rest of the herd.

What if any other herding/pairing/socialization stories do you guys know of, or can you think of, that struck you at the time when you heard about them and seemed notable? How do you explain these stories in concert with your theist, agnostic, or athiest beliefs?

As a human, I do a lot of "virtual herding" by emailing the old Utah gang and by frequenting Polyamory.com and such. Does that count as the herding instinct also? Why do I do it? Sometimes I do feel that sense in "safety in numbers," even if the people I converse with are physically far away. I always live for that tasty bite of accolades or validation that people often share with me over the interwebz, and it "feels nice" when I reckon I've said something that has somehow helped someone else along the way. This, too, is herding instinct, is it not? How else do humans (and non-human people) display herding instincts do you think? Family reunions is an obvious example. Surely church attendance is too?

Thus ends my blog-like musing for today.
Regards,
Kevin T.
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Last edited by kdt26417; 01-30-2014 at 10:15 PM.
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Old 02-03-2014, 10:35 AM
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I haven't anything useful at the moment (I should have been asleep hours ago). I wanted to get into this thread though, so I can follow it and if I think of something useful to add, I can find it again.

I am intrigued by your thoughts on this.
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Old 02-05-2014, 04:09 AM
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Default How My Buddies and I Replied -- 1 of 2

Some interesting (or at least entertaining) replies from my "Utah buddies:"

The Programmer Guy said:
Quote:
"As for herding observations, I often witness manic herding around the sample tables at Costco; also referred to as 'cartmageddon.' Then when I'm at Chuck-a-Rama, the herding around the buffet wagons can be quite impressive. So based on these observations, I conclude that herding must be a positive selector when free items are being offered or unlimited gorging is offered at a set price."
Is that profound or what?

The Astronomer Guy said:
Quote:
"Whether it completes the list, I cannot say, but one advantage to joining the herd is that the larger the herd you are with, the less likely it is that you are the weakest individual and the odds of being scoped for the carnivore's meal plan are proportionally reduced.

Now if you consider yourself to be among the slowest/weakest in the herd, a better strategy than hanging with that herd (which herd will surely attract sharp teeth from all corners of the forest) might be to ditch, and seek out obscure feeding grounds and secret caches where predators are scarce. Or possibly find a more motley group to hang out with, so as not to be such an obvious target for the cull.

As far as the sheep-wolf analogy goes, I fancy myself to be a border collie, somewhat of a minority wherever I go, willing to entertain with sheep if they will have me and don't bore me to tears; willing to hobnob with wolves so long as they esteem me as a fellow canine and not as mutton."
Some of my subsequent remarks:
Quote:
"Okay, we've established that an individual will join a herd for some kind of personal gain. Are there any individuals who will join a herd for purely unselfish motives? This question could apply to humans and/or non-humans. If the answer is at all yes, how would we describe that individual's motivation?

Anyone know of some good examples? It seems to me that there were a couple of instances in the Gospels where Jesus just wanted to be alone, yet crowds followed him and he never had the heart to turn them away. I'm thinking one of those times was when he ended up feeding the 5000 with a few loaves and fishes. And who could forget the time when people brought their kids to Jesus and the apostles tried to turn them away: 'He's too tired, don't trouble him with this right now.' But Jesus admonished the apostles, 'We should never turn the little ones away, for of such is the Kingdom of God.'

Having a history of being something of a loner as a teen, not feeling safe amongst the high school crowds (indeed feeling all the more lonesome as I felt so invisible amongst them), it took some encouragement and praise for me to join in a herd/group milieu. But then that, too, was me joining in for selfish reasons, wasn't it?

I invite you to describe any selfless actions you've done, heard of, or witnessed, and philosophize on what would convince a person to do such actions. Surely it can't be Darwinism, right? Must be God/the Holy Ghost?

Interesting visual: tons of sperm cells on their desperate race toward the egg in a woman's body. Only one sperm cell will make it. All the rest will die. So looking at it from one sperm cell's perspective, that type of herd behavior isn't very advantageous. What convinces a sperm cell to throw itself into what, really, is a suicide mission? There must be an atheist explanation ...

And humans partake of this crazy kind of bandwagon behavior too: They buy lottery tickets. Am I right? From one individual's point of view, it is a rather silly thing to do. How does Mother Nature manage to convince so many humans to do it? Surely they're not just thinking, 'Well I'm helping the schools,' are they? How do they work their cognitive dissonance between the extravagant reward and the piddling odds? It ain't rocket science."
The Conservative Guy said:
Quote:
"Herding is related to several other words more often associated with human beings: 'social,' 'family,' 'community,' and 'nations.' There seems to be something deeply ingrained in us that makes us long for being connected to others and making a difference in their lives rather than being satisfied with solitary existences.

Generally, to fulfill our longing for connectedness, we have to sacrifice things. This might include many of the following:
  • conformity
  • submitting to authority
  • personal pleasures verses self-sacrifice for the good of the group
  • forgiveness
Being unwilling to accept these tend to make you an outcast from a group. (Note that you might be willing to make such sacrifices for one group, but not for another.) However, if you do choose to make the required sacrifices, you can be rewarded with:
  • meaning
  • a cause greater than yourself
  • comfort
  • protection
  • guidance
Note that by connectedness I do not mean things like 'friends' on Facebook. Psychology has documented how people who have hundreds of so-called virtual 'friends' tend to be lonely, depressed, and unhappy. Real happiness seems to come not from internet connections, but from real flesh interactions in the real world.

There are two counterintuitive facts about group connectedness. The first is that 'perfect' or 'soul-mate' type connections are not needed for fulfillment. Our most satisfying connections are with imperfect, sometimes difficult-to-get-along-with people. The second counter-intuitive fact is that it doesn't seem to matter much about how much you are alike with other members of the group, or how much you 'pick' them due to similarities.

For example, consider soldiers in a battle squad who undergo tremendous stress under combat. The survivors tend to bond together extremely powerfully, even though they never 'picked' each other, but were assigned together virtually at random by tactical commanders.

This desire for connection does not always lead to positives. Consider criminal gangs, lynch mobs, virtually all offensive armies, and socialism. Note that all of these are involved with seeking to take freedom away from others by group force.

Is the 'group herd' mentality contemptible? Does it demonstrate weakness? Should we work to overcome it?

Those who believe in souls have a satisfying framework for explaining this mysterious longing for connectedness, and when focused on a good cause this longing becomes worthwhile and uplifting. Indeed, is not belief in Deity ultimately a belief in something that offers the chance to become unified on a cosmic, all-encompassing scale?"
I was impressed by that. He's usually a lot more vague and dogmatic than that.

[continued below]
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Old 02-05-2014, 04:10 AM
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Default How My Buddies and I Replied -- 2 of 2

[continued from above]

Some of my subsequent remarks:
Quote:
"Liked your list of 'prices of admission' that herds extract from their members. Couldn't think of any points to add to it so it must be fairly complete.

Same goes for your 'benefits of membership' list. At first my knee-jerk reaction might be to say, 'Bah! What care I for 'a cause greater than myself' or 'guidance?' I don't need anyone to tell me what to do!' Yet, even the coldest Obama-ist (such as myself -- praise Obama, praise his name forever, yea amen) desires a cause greater than himself. He wants to leave some kind of legacy that benefits humanity. And, we do accept guidance; as kids for example we trust our parents to teach us how to get along in the world. And as adults we trust (and benefit from) the guidance of traffic signals, etc. ... I'm sure I could think of more.

And now for my inevitable quibbles ... (for I must ever play Obama's advocate) ...

Re:
Quote:
'Note that by connectedness I do not mean things like "friends" on Facebook.'
Buh, buh, buh ... you mean my 500 Mafia Wars buddies don't count as meaningful relationships? Sniffle/lip quiver etc.

Let's not be too black and white, though, when it comes to 'internet relationships.' There's a big difference between saying, 'Oh what the #=!!, sure I'll friend that Facebook person -- their name rings a bell,' and between an individual you email on a regular basis with deep, lengthy discussions about life, ethics, and personal stuff. Even if that other person lives on the opposite side of the globe, you might still have a very meaningful relationship with them.

And, live/IRL/in-person relationships cover quite the spectrum too. There's the grocery store cashier with whom you exchange a pleasantry or two during your one-minute business relationship with them; there's the guy on the corner who asks if you know the time ... and of course there's the obvious spouse/children type relationships which admittedly should trump all other relationships including internet relationships. Those are the extreme examples and there's lots of in-between 'degrees of meatspace relationship.'

And what of those special kinds of friends -- I think we can all think of one or two, who live far away and who we don't contact for years -- yet when we run into them sometime again (by email or) in person, it's like we barely parted company with them for a minute? Some people are like your 'spiritual kin' -- and they always seem to retain that status.

But yeah, if your whole social life revolves around Facebook ... LOL, SMH, such a pity, I'll remember you in my prayers.

Re: soul-mates and not-so-soul-mates ... hmmm this is an even more interesting involved puzzle so my quibble won't be as iron-clad.

First problem: How often is one likely to meet 'a' soul-mate? In all honesty? For some entertaining food for thought about that ...

http://what-if.xkcd.com/9/

Second problem: How easy is it to quantify how much of soul-mate-ness a person has with us? What constitutes soul-mate-ness? Do they have to always agree with us? or is it rather that they always have to emotionally sympathize with us? What other attributes measure and determine a soul-mate?

Third problem: I actually agree with you that if we only paired up with perfectly-matched persons, it'd probably be a boring (and arguably less meaningful) relationship than, say, a relationship with someone who matched wits with us, challenged our assumptions, and forced us to think. So I think we do seek out some contrast in the company we keep ... and yet, I also think there are limits to how far we'll go in that direction. Few of us, for example, would get caught keeping company with our blood enemies. It's hard to imagine Hitler and Gandhi sitting down together for a cup of tea, for example.

And just in general, who wants to hang out with someone who only puts us down all the time? So we do desire challenge in our relationships, and yet we also desire moderation in the amount of challenge. There's a fine line between respectful disagreement and ruthless excoriation. Though it's true that Jesus, in the end, gave himself up to the whims and wishes of his enemies. I'm just saying most of us don't operate on quite that high of a spiritual plane.

Another good example of this idea is a fictional example: the story of M*A*S*H. Heh, as the series progresses, we find that the terrors of war help forge respectful friendships between unlikely duos. Does everyone remember the episode/s where Hawkeye and Margaret got to know each other better -- and grudgingly respect each other a little better as well? but that aside, Hawkeye's first choice of war buddies were Trapper John and then later B.J. Hunnicutt -- guys who while not being clones of Hawkeye, were scoundrels after his own heart and enjoyed causing mischief with him. So people do tend to seek out kindred -- not identical, but kindred -- spirits.

I totally agree that the extremities of the battlefield tend to forge strong ties between people who otherwise wouldn't know each other from Adam. They forge loyalties between souls who may have opposite religious or political views. I thought the movie 'Saving Private Ryan' vividly illustrated this principle. I guess war is just one of those things that helps people realize how much they have in common on a fundamental level.

I love the following quote:
Quote:
'So, let us not be blind to our differences -- but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.'
-- John Fitzgerald Kennedy, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/JFK#Ame...versity_speech
Now, is there a formula for avoiding herd behavior that is destructive? If people come together for a common cause of love, rather than a common cause of hatred, does that suffice to protect us from the evils of lynch mobs and such? Remember that the people in a lynch mob think they're doing a good thing. What code of morals would save them from that thinking? You can't say religion will save them because your average (stereotypical) lynch mobber is quite religious (and God-fearing).

And yes, I know it's a truly petty quibble for me to bring up your socialism example, but let's not be too hasty there either. At least one or two amongst us don't necessarily think socialism is automatically evil. Certain Scandanavian countries seem to have pulled it off very well for example -- a democratic version of it.

Sure Russia (was) and China (is) are flagrant examples of communist regimes that oppress/ed their peoples. But I'm not convinced that the ideologies at the foundation of those political systems were necessarily the problem. I think it's more a problem that a country with a history of 'the strong crushing the weak,' will tend to continue to have that problem, no matter what political style it dons. It takes a long, long time to root evil out of the seat of great power. Merely exchanging one tyrant for another, or one tyrannical system for another, doesn't do the trick.

Okay now I'll stop quibbling.

Re:
Quote:
'Is the 'group herd' mentality contemptible? Does it demonstrate weakness? Should we work to overcome it?'
Ah now that's a profound question. I think the answer is that herd behavior per se isn't necessarily evil, but like the knowledge that made the atom bomb possible, it can be turned both toward great good and toward great evil. So rather than working to stamp out herd-ism as a whole, I would have us rack our brains to think of ways to turn the herd instinct away from evil and towards good. Fascinatingly and frustratingly, it is often hard for us to agree on what constitutes 'good herd behavior' versus 'bad herd behavior.'

Re:
Quote:
'Those who believe in souls have a satisfying framework for explaining this mysterious longing for connectedness, and when focused on a good cause this longing becomes worthwhile and uplifting. Indeed, is not belief in Deity ultimately a belief in something that offers the chance to become unified on a cosmic, all-encompassing scale?'
Naturally my knee-jerk reaction was, 'Bup! Atheists can dig the herding ideals too.' But then I realized, '$#!+, he has a point.' Indeed I wonder if the very heart of religion isn't the desire of humans (and non-humans?) everywhere to enjoy a united, harmonious eternity together. Something about that ideal seems to be religious in nature by its very definition.

So see, I, an atheist, have admitted that I may need some religion in my life."
This disproved his theory that our debates would never result in anyone changing their mind about anything. Go Kev!
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