I recently found an interesting interview of Iain Couzin on Edge.org. Iain Couzin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. His research focuses on understanding collective behaviours. In particular he is interested in how large-scale biological patterns result from the actions and interactions of the individual components of a system. He studies self-organized pattern formation in a wide range of biological systems, including ants, fish schools, bird flocks, locust/cricket swarms and human crowds. In this long interview, Iain Couzin delivers his thoughts about his own research activity and about the study of animal collective behaviours in general. Hereafter is the beginning of the interview.
“A fundamental question in biology is how the functioning of collective systems works—whether you are dealing with the function of a tissue and how the cells within a tissue interact, or whether you’re dealing with ecologies or even ecosystems. We really need to build a new understanding and new tools that allow us to integrate across these scales. People refer to top-down and bottom-up; in some sense we have to take both approaches to try to understand these systems.
There is no characteristic scale that is the right scale to observe a system—one of the reasons I studied animal groups is that the systems can be taken apart and put together very easily. Some of the models and the understanding that we get from how these groups function—we are all familiar with the dramatic collective patterns exhibited by schools of fish or flocks of birds—and the way we can take these systems—like an ant colony—apart to see how they really function gives us deep insights…” More here.