Over one hundred years ago, Sir Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess an ox’s weight. None of them got it right, but averaging the answers led to a near-perfect estimate. This is a textbook case of the so-called “wisdom of crowds,” in which we’re smarter as collectives than we are as individuals. But the story of why evolution sometimes favors sociality is not so simple — everyone can call up cases in which larger groups make worse decisions. More nuanced scientific research is required for a deeper understanding of the origins and fitness benefits of collective computation — how the complexity of an environment or problem, or the structure of a group, provides the evolutionary pressures that have shaped the landscape of wild and civilized societies alike. Not every group deploys the same rules for decision-making; some decide by a majority, some by consensus. Some groups break up into smaller sub-groups and evaluate things in a hierarchy of modular decisions. Some crowds are wise and some are dumber than their parts, and understanding how and when and why the living world adopts a vast diversity of different strategies for sociality yields potent insights into how to tackle the most wicked problems of our time.
This week’s guest is Albert Kao, a Baird Scholar and Omidyar Fellow here at SFI. Kao came to Santa Fe after receiving his PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton and spending three years as a James S. McDonnell fellow at Harvard. In this episode, we talk about his research into social animals and collective decision-making, just one of several reasons why a species might evolve to live in groups. What do the features of these groups, or the environments they live in, have to do with how they process information and act in the world?
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