The Theosophical Society in America

"Boids," the Group Soul, and Universal Brotherhood

By George M. Young

Originally printed in the JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Young, George M. "Boids," the Group Soul, and Universal Brotherhood." Quest  96.1 (JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008): 23-25.

George YoungPerhaps, like me, you have sometimes marveled at the sight of a flock of birds, a swarm of insects, or a school of fish, all moving as if with one mind; not just in a single direction, but almost as a living cloud, twisting this way and that, over and around invisible obstacles in air or water. How do they do it? Does one of them set the course for all the rest to follow by visual, auditory, or other cues, or do they together somehow intuit where the entire flock is headed and where each individual in the swarm belongs? Does the first minnow actually lead, or is he or she merely the front fish for the will of the school? And if the one at the head of the formation falls back, how is it decided that another--and which one--will take its place?

Biologists have long been interested in such questions, and in a 1986 seminal study applying the principles of artificial life to coordinated animal behavior, Craig Reynolds proposed three simple rules that each individual "boid" (as he calls them) could follow in order to produce the emergent behavior pattern we know as flocking. The principles were: separation (steering to avoid interfering with local flock members); alignment (steering toward the average heading of the local flock); and cohesion (steering toward the average position of the local flock). In the studies that have followed, these principles have been turned to many applications, for instance enabling science students to simulate flocking behavior on their laptops, and film studios to create realistic animated wildebeest stampedes and penguin marches.

The principles of steering, alignment, and cohesion may offer an accurate, replicable description of flocking "boids," but do these terms really explain the sudden, simultaneous swoop of twenty or thirty little birds from one side of a highway over to the other? Or the dark, roiling cloud of minnows that suddenly flashes past the end of the dock? What allows the "boid" to know whether it is or is not interfering with others, whether or not it is aligned, or whether it has or has not attained cohesion with the group? As a student of Theosophy looking for a deeper understanding of such things, I find useful a concept that Leadbeater and others have called (though perhaps it is still controversial) the "group soul" of animals. As Leadbeater explains in Man Visible and Invisible, evolution has brought only humans and the highest, domesticated animals to the stage of individualization. Lower animals have individual bodies but seem much less individualized in awareness and behavior. Leadbeater illustrates the idea with the image of a tumbler of water dipped from a bucket. Imagine that a certain amount of coloring—representing individual qualities and life experiences—were added to the tumbler of water, lending it a particular hue. At the anima's death, the tumbler of water, with its coloring, would be poured back into the bucket, adding a slight new tint to the water in the bucket, which has already been and is still being tinted by the water from many other similar tumblers. The next time the emptied tumbler is filled, it will not hold exactly the same water as before, but will contain many particles of the same water as before—a mixture of individuality and replication. The golden retriever our children now play with may not be the same one that we played with as children, but throw a tennis ball as far as you can and the differences disappear.

The higher up the ladder of evolution, the more individuality and less replication appears in the mixture. Creatures lower on the ladder live almost entirely by the instincts built over time into the group souls of their kinds. In the more evolved, instinct is still present, but it has become less and less the dominant factor in behavior. We humans still have traces of a group soul—when the wave comes our way at the ballpark, how can we not join it? But we usually think of ourselves as better and more human when we try to behave as conscious and responsible individuals and not as a blind instinctive mass.

One problem that we may have as we evolve, is that in thinking of ourselves primarily as free, conscious individuals and in valuing behaviors that emphasize consciousness and free choice, we can forget that we do still retain traces of our group soul. We may either try to ignore or exaggerate our ancient animal instincts instead of recognizing, respecting, and intelligently governing them. This would seem to be particularly true in America, and probably in Western Europe as well, where, on one hand, extreme individualism has reached the point where social commentators warn of the loss of all sense of community, where anomie has become endemic, and, as Robert Putnam has suggested in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, we spend our lives and waste our social capital "bowling alone." While on the other hand, partly as an antithetical reaction against individualism, extreme group-angst has led to widespread unthinking tribalism, that is, mindless identification with whatever religion, ethnic group, age sector, job category, political party, educational background, income level, or other population segment to which we feel most allegiance. Extreme individualism would, for better and/or worse, set me against the uncomprehending and unaccepting "rest of the world," just as extreme tribalism would unite me to my kind against all the other kinds.

As Theosophists, one thing we can try to do is to model a properly balanced human mixture of individualism and flocking behavior. Each of us, with our unique qualities, histories, abilities, and memories is more of an individual, differentiated from every other, to a degree unmatched in any other species. At the same time, our DNA proves without question, that we, with all our individual and tribal differences, are related as members of one human family. Supposedly, we all know this by now as an incontrovertible fact. But, as the daily news tragically demonstrates, knowing and acting on what we know are very different things. What we, as a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, can do is not only preach but practice the awareness that we are all of one family.

In American literature and thought, the heavy emphasis is on the individual who stands out from the crowd, the hero who rides his own way, rows against the currents, takes the road less traveled, and listens to a different drummer. As Walt Whitman said, "I sing myself, and celebrate myself." Or as Emily Dickinson put it, "The Soul selects her own society." Robert Bly has noted that our most talented and creative minds have all wanted to be the flying fragments rather than a part of that solid mass from which the flying fragments fly. But, when nearly everybody is trying to be a flying fragment, what remains to fly from? When everyone is trying so desperately to be "different," then what is there to be different from?

In Taoism, Confucianism, and the literature and thought of much of the non-western world, the emphasis is not so much on the outstanding natural or human unit as on the confluent balance of realities within which the particular natural or human unit has its role and place. In Russian literature and thought, an idea that comes up again and again is sobornost, from sobor, the word for "cathedral" and "congregation," meaning a spiritual consensus within which the individual voice finds its full and free expression. In this tradition, the most important decisions are made not by majority vote but by sobornost, where everyone who wishes speaks his mind freely and eventually there emerges a consensus to which every voice has contributed. In this tradition, the real hero is not the dissident who steps away from the group to go his own way, but the one who speaks the truth with such persuasive force that those who initially hold other views freely--with no coercion--relinquish and correct their erroneous positions. Although not as often as in Russian culture, we do sometimes see sobornost in American culture. In the old black and white movies, the model for this kind of heroism would not be the Lone Ranger, or the Gary Cooper character in High Noon, but the Henry Fonda character in Twelve Angry Men.

Balance, then, is what we can offer as a model. When we see extreme blind tribalism, we can emphasize the importance of each individual. And when we see individualism taken to a disgusting, exclusive extreme, we can reemphasize the value of community.

As the paradoxical narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground so persuasively argues, we should under no circumstances allow ourselves to become ants in an anthill. Heightened individual consciousness, though often it brings pain, is our chief human quality and a divine gift. So while we may admire a sweeping flock of birds, or a bending cloud of insects, and marvel at the instinct that keeps them at once apart and together, their way is no longer ours. We retain traces of the group soul and should not ignore or forget that part of our evolving nature. But neither should we allow the instincts embedded in our group soul to dominate our behavior. Consciousness, not only aware of but directing its own evolution, is a mark of our humanity. As individual members of a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of all humanity, we can consciously attempt to model and direct ourselves, and members of our flock, to a higher form of separation, alignment, and cohesion than even the marvelous versions accomplished unconsciously by our finned and winged fellow creatures.