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All In The Family

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One thing that we do not often think about, but which manifests itself again and again throughout society is the "mass effect" of recessions and depressions on individuals, those things that people do individually but nevertheless very much like the rest of their cohort. I am tempted to use the expression "quorum sensing" here, that activity of cells and units that emerges from some pervasive stimulus. Schools of fish seem to "quorum sense" and move as a body in response to local stimuli. Bacteria and viruses definitely quorum sense and change their behaviors to become more virulent (or less) when certain chemical messages are broadcast among them. Lemmings may be "quorum sensing" when they take off on one of their epic journeys ... even over cliffs!

Americans are founding fewer households these days. No one is telling them not to move back in with mom and dad, no one is keeping squabbling marrieds from getting divorced, but people are responding directly to the stimulus of news that the economy is in trouble with no end in sight for quite a while.

Needless to say this behavior pattern which we will categorize as risk aversion does not help the economy. In this sense it is perverse behavior, but completely understandable. Lemmings leave wherever they were because they "feel" the impact of their population on resources (presumably), so their "quorum sensing" is not perverse, only their single-minded hurling themselves off cliffs into oblivion is. Viruses take on different roles when they "sense" that with their critical mass of numbers they will be able to accomplish what was impossible with fewer.

Democracy is an institution for quorum sensing in a way. Without democracy who would know what other members of a population are "sensing," "feeling," or thinking? We, our species, has just recently (in bio/geological time frames) acquired the ability and temperament for democracy. You can see from the daily news that the decision-making process is not as well developed as the general scheme of democracy. Partly this is because we are seeing ultra fine details of the processes and have feed-forward and feed-back negotiations and conversations about them.

My daughter and her boyfriend are quorum sensing even as I sit here wondering whether I will ever have grandchildren. Like thousands of parents with adult children we are acting out similar pathways of behavior toward our children. Grandparents wonder whether their grandchildren will be able to go to college, or wonder what kinds of jobs will be available, or wonder whether in their own quest for comfort and security they have ruined it for their progeny. It is a good question!

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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