COMPLEXITY: Physics of Life

Mark Moffett on Canopy Biology & The Human Swarm

Episode Notes

Most maps of the world render landscapes in 2D — yet wherever we observe ecosystems, they stratify into a third dimension. The same geometries that describe the dizzying diversity of species in the canopies of forests also govern life in other  living systems, from the oceans to the linings of our mouths. Behind the many forms, a hidden order shapes how organisms live in and on each other — and this emerging discipline of “canopy biology”  may yield important insights into modern urban life. Human societies, like gigantic swarms of ants, are elaborately coordinated super-organisms. In these enormous in-groups, one key feature is the anonymity of members. By studying a treetop world where organisms never see the ground that humans take for granted, structural ecologists glean lessons for the denizens of concrete jungles.

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week’s guest, Mark Moffett, did his doctoral work at Harvard under E.O. Wilson, helped fund decades of research with wildlife photography for National Geographic, and currently holds research positions at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and as an entomologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He has resisted conventional professorship in order to climb trees in over 40 countries and write four books on ecology and evolution. In this episode, we talk about the vertical dimension that theoretical ecology has largely overlooked, and the fruits of his investigation into the nature of societies — both ant and human.

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Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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More on and by Mark Moffett:

Mark’s Website & Google Scholar Page

Mark’s SFI Virtual Seminar on Canopy Biology & SFI’s Twitter Thread

Ant colonies: building complex organizations with minuscule brains and no leaders

Comparative Canopy Biology and the Structure of Ecosystems

“What’s 'up?’ A critical look at the basic terms of canopy biology” 

Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society?

Supercolonies, nests, and societies: distinguishing the forests from the trees

Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies

Why a Universal Society Is Unattainable

Divided We Stand: Patriotism vs. Nationalism

More related reading:

Marcus Hamilton, Robert Walker, Chris Kempes - Diversity begets diversity in mammal species and human cultures

Rodney Brooks & Anita M. Flynn - Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Related episodes of Complexity Podcast:

10 - Melanie Moses re: ant colony scaling and 3D chip architecture

17 - Chris Kempes re: stromatolites and scaling ribosomal and genetic volumes inside cells leading to multicellularity

39 - Eddie Lee re: fractal violence

43 - Vicky Yang re: out-group formation

20 - Albert Kao re: stalemates in collective computation

35 - Geoffrey West re: overlay of social networks in geographic space vs. cyberspace

Episode Transcription

Machine-generated transcript produced by and edited by Complexity Podcast listener Danielle Johnson. (Thank you, Danielle!)

If you would like to join our team of volunteer podcast transcript editors, please email michaelgarfield[at]santafe[dot]edu. Thanks and enjoy:


Mark Moffett (0s):

The rainforest don't have much in the way of soil it's the soil is very thin and it turns out a primary source of soil and the nutrients in it for rainforest and cloud forest arrives in the canopy in the mist and rain, and accumulates on the branches. So you can have a soil, a foot thick, and the top of a large tree. And I've seen in redwoods, trees growing on the tops of trees out of the soil, in the canopy. So you can have a forest out of view from the ground.  That structural stuff and connection with all these nutrients and where it’s arriving generates a lot of opportunities for diversity. And, those are often studied in terms of gradients or stratification, these aggregate properties, these nonuniform vertical distributions of different things.  So what that means is when you go up in a tree, the ecosystem changes much faster than it does when you walk horizontally on the ground in a rain forest.


Michael Garfield (1m 23s):

Most maps of the world render landscapes in 2-D, yet wherever we observe ecosystems, they stratify into a third dimension.  The same geometries that describe the dizzying diversity of species in the canopies of forests also govern life in other living systems, from the oceans to the linings of our mouths.  Behind the many forms, a hidden order shapes how organisms live in and on each other. And this emerging discipline of canopy biology may yield important insights into modern urban life. Human societies, like gigantic swarms of ants, are elaborately coordinated super organisms.   In these enormous in-groups one key feature is the anonymity of members.  By studying a tree top world where organisms never see the ground that humans take for granted, structural ecologists glean lessons for the denizens of concrete jungles. Welcome to Complexity the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week, we'll bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe. This week's guest Mark Moffitt did his doctoral work at Harvard under Edward O. Wilson; helped fund decades of research with wildlife photography for national geographic; and currently holds research positions at Harvard's Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and as an entomologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  He has resisted conventional professorship in order to climb trees in over 40 countries and write four books on ecology and evolution. In this episode, we talk about the vertical dimension that theoretical ecology has often overlooked and the fruits of his investigation into the nature of societies, both ant and human. If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a and or rating and reviewing us at Apple podcasts.  You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Thank you for listening.


Michael Garfield (3m 36s)

Mark Moffitt. It's a pleasure to have you on Complexity podcast.


Mark Moffett (3m 44s):

Hey Michael, great to be here.


Michael Garfield (3m 46s):

So my supervisor Jenna Marshall, or our communications manager here at SFI is always reminding me to start my stories and my explanations on the ground and given the trajectory of your work, that seems like the right place to do it. Why don't we start by talking a little bit about how you became a scientist, because I think you have an especially juicy biography to relay to us.


Mark Moffett (4m 12s):

Juicy, yes, well, I'm a-typical. I have various students ask me how to replicate my career and I say, “I have no idea.” I say the best way of approaching success is through ignorance. Once you know too much, it just slows you down. And so I started off watching ants in diapers, that is as an infant, and I just never gave up and to them they were fascinating. You know, it showed commitment. Most people watch ants in diapers and they give up…I just kept going. And I was a poor student, eventually dropped out of college, but got into a small liberal arts college called Beloit College and got a biology degree.  And I got a book from the science book club, one of three-for-a-dollar by a guy named Edward O. Wilson called The Insect Society. And I thought that was the coolest book of all time. So in college I wrote this guy, my small liberal arts college Beloit, I wrote him from there and he said, “Oh, come by and meet me.”  He had a handwritten note back. And I didn't know you're not supposed to just write professors out of the blue as an undergraduate, but he wanted to meet me, so that was great. So I was on my way to Woods Hole for a summer course and I dropped by and I gave him a big double handshake and called him “Ed”.  I found out later you're supposed to call him Dr. Wilson, but I always called him “Ed”. And we just started talking about ants as if I was a kid watching them in my backyard growing up. And that's what I've loved about Ed Wilson, that sense of joyous wonder that he's never lost. And I got into graduate school at Harvard and started exploring. As an undergraduate I'd gotten to know various tropical explorers. And so I tell people now I'm a professional Explorer.  I’ve been to perhaps a hundred countries, over a hundred countries at this point.  I find reasons to go places and things to do in them, pursuing different questions. And I grew up reading the books of people like Alfred Russell Wallace, and I wasn't from a rich family, but he collected specimens to keep going, and I turned out, I could take pictures. I was very good at it. And so I funded myself by taking these pictures and doing things for National Geographic to find ways of getting out and doing my research. And that was on ants, but also on the structure of forest.  I was really interested in forest and I found out that most of the world's biodiversity was in the tops of trees. So I started doing these tree climbing expeditions and it became more and more fascinating to me. So in any case, I've bounced back and forth between writing and photography and my studies. And I noticed that one of your favorite quotes is by Murray Gell-Mann, “In the 21st century the most important mind will be the synthesizing mind.”  In my mind, that is true. And I like to piece things together and look at things from different points of view; it seems to be what I do best. Like my mentor, Ed Wilson. I'm not a mathematician. I leave that to others.  But I like to bring ideas together from different fields and see how they play out and what can be done with them.


Michael Garfield (7m 33s):

Well, in light of that, I think we're going to have some fun because that's one of my favorite pastimes. I feel like that's one of the main things that we do here on the show.  For those who are not already familiar with E.O. Wilson, please make a point of doing this for yourself.  Your future self will thank you. One of the books that he wrote that really inspired me in college was his book on consilience, bringing all of these different domains and disciplines and points of view together. And it's a big thing here at SFI to search for, what we called in one of our first books at SFI press, the worlds hidden in plain sight; the underlying universal pattern and order behind seemingly disparate phenomenon. You've written a lot about this. I don't want to jump too far ahead in our conversation, but your comparative analysis of ant societies and human societies is something I really want to get to. But first, I encountered your work through the talk that you gave the SFI seminar on canopy biology.  And this is a really interesting application of this way of looking at things to see the sort of underlying patterns, because this is all about the geometry of forests and where else do we find this kind of geometry in living systems and what kind of research questions does thinking about these systems in this multidimensional way open up.  So I would love to hear you talk a little bit about the move that you made here in your 2001 paper, The nature and limits of canopy biology, and since, to expand the kind of thinking that you were doing about forest canopies into a broader understanding of ecology in a structural way. I feel like this is a good place to anchor the conversation or sink roots, if you will.


Mark Moffett (9m 25s):

Thanks. Well, I actually gave a talk on this once and Murray Gell-Mann was in the audience, the famous physicist that I just mentioned, and he fell out of his chair during the talk and everyone rushed over to make sure he was okay. And I like to tell people afterwards it was because my talk was so awesome because the canopies are so cool that even someone working on the far reaches of physics could fall out of their chair just hearing about them. But for most people the word canopy means: a cover overhead. That's literally what it means. And that's sort of our anthropocentric bias of what a canopy is, it's a forest.  But, I said, I studied ants, or watched them when I was a kid and ended up studying them, and so my own perspective has been about ants. And when I was climbing up in these trees, and I've climbed some of the largest trees in the world like redwoods, I kept thinking about what an ant would experience. And it occurred to me that even a mowed lawn would look like an enormous structure to an ant. And in fact, I eventually found a paper by a guy named Bastow Wilson, a New Zealander ecologist who died a couple years ago, showing that mowed lawns have all these structural features that you find in rain forests, just scaled down.  But no one studying rainforests or other forests was looking at papers like Bastow Wilson’s. And so I ended up writing a review of our biotropic on the different terms of canopy biology and sort of the features about canopies and the finding in that paper you mentioned, a canopy as being a part of any community of fixed organisms, sessile organisms, that emerge from a substratum. So that allows us to look at all kinds of communities, spatially-fixed communities, and then things get really interesting. So I'll just mention a couple of them before we go on, ones that I didn't know much about because forest ecologists never looked at these, the literature on these things or knew the experts on these things, but there are periphyton, that's pond scum. Do you know much about pond scum Michael?


Michael Garfield (11m 26s):

I'm currently fighting a rather large bloom of pond scum in my aquaria at home, but otherwise, no.


Mark Moffett (11m 33s):

Well, I couldn't find much about…there's a literature on pond scum, but I couldn't find what I wanted. So I ended up looking through all these papers on things like water filtration systems. And I found an illustration of the communities that developed in one of these filtration systems, that looked just like a forest, there are all these trunks going up of certain algae species to different layers. And I look closely there were epithetic ones, those diatoms and so forth that lived in the canopy of these microscopic forests.  And even more cool, there were little growth forms called spirogyra spiraled along these tree-like a species looking like vines.  And I wrote the guy who did this paper and said, you know, these look just like vines climbing a tree. And he said, yes, there was an early German paper that described those algae as climbing by circumnutation, which is the word that Darwin used to describe how vines climb trees. And so I'm seeing all these parallels with forests in a community that's the size of your fingernail or the height of your fingernail. And then I kept looking closer at the biofilms. These are bacterial films, largely bacterial films, and they're usually described as films, but I found out that the bacteria in them usually form what are called micro colonies and the cross-section of those micro colonies just look like a forest.  The bacteria create these structures that look like trees that can be at different heights and they wave past each other and they don't fuse. And the ones growing on the plaque of your teeth form structures that look not only exactly like trees, but they consist of nine different species of bacteria that create these trees jointly. So these biofilms are basically showing some of the attributes that we look at when we think of tissues in our own bodies. Bill Costerton, a famous…who started these studies of biofilms, talked about them having homeostasis, a circulatory system, and all this cooperation, like the tissues in our bodies.  And I was wondering how these forests in microminiature compared to our own real forest, the forest that we see around us. And there's a lot of interesting parallels going on that have never been looked at.


Michael Garfield (13m 56s):

Mm. So a couple of things that came up in thinking about this is how adjacent this is to so much of the research being done on scaling laws and biophysics elsewhere at SFI.  We had Melanie Moses of UNM on in Episode 10 where she was talking about also ant colonies and how a colonial organism, like an ant, represents an approach to adapting to the pressures of trying to make a bigger ant. That eventually it's like there's a phase transition between just going bigger and bigger and bigger and that the ant represents what a SFI, external professor Ricard Solé calls the liquid brain.  So as you know, she's interested in how this works with respect to robot swarms and also three-dimensional architecture of chips. And then I'm just going to keep throwing out stray links and you can latch on wherever you feel an interesting purchase here, but we had Chris Kempes on in episode, 17 talking about biophysical scaling laws as they apply not only to things like the maximum height that the forest canopy could be, but also why we get these thresholds in terms of the amount of ribosome and DNA inside of a cell. And then at what point it makes sense for a lineage of organisms to go multicellular as it has to accommodate the flows of information and energy within it.  So there's a lot here on why it is that we see these patterns over and over and over again, and what these patterns might be telling us about the way that systems have to manage the metabolic processes. It seems like the gateway to complex systems thinking, the big sign on the front of this rabbit hole, is something like looking at the image of the river delta and the human cardiovascular system and the forest canopy and seeing the similar branching architecture. So studying ecosystems in the structural way, for starters opens up a question about biogeography in general and how we measure diversity and the relationship between this three-dimensional structure and diversity.  And I feel like that's a key point that I'd like to hear you talk a little bit about, because when you look at Google maps or whatever, and it's supposedly showing you these gradients between different ecosystems and the color of the map, and that's just not at all doing justice to the complexity of what you're describing.


Mark Moffett (16m 29s):

Yeah. Well, Chris Kempes has done some really interesting stuff there with how communities should be structured. And this to me is a big question because when biologists usually are talking about structure, they mean some kind of a metaphysical or abstract sense. There's actually a big gap in what we know about the actual physical structure of these systems. And those structures are a scaffolding on which everything else lives. So they're very important for that reason. And the fascinating thing for me, for example, with biofilms, and it may be true to some extent for other systems, is they start off very competitive.  There are different bacteria land on a surface, and they're killing each other and doing the old Darwinian thing. But by the time they've sorted it out, things become a lot more cooperative. And arguably that can be true of other systems too. You know, this brings us back to like Lynn Margulis’s way of looking at ecosystems. And there's a guy Mark Bertness at Brown, who looks at seagrass communities and others in terms of the cooperation between these species to create structures. One species can take in nutrients, expel, excrete certain things that the next species can use and so forth.  And by the time they sort out themselves in space you have a pretty efficient system going. And that is indeed part of what can generate the biodiversity we see around us. And that to me is what's really valuable here about thinking about these canopies; about the canopies of all these different kinds of ecosystems. You can't follow a forest through time in your lifetime because it takes too long. We can't study a lot of things about forests.  But we could potentially use things like biofilms as model systems to study to the assembly rules for physical structure and the dynamics of forests.  And no one's done that, but it could be easily done. So problems that are intractable in forests can be addressed using these shorter, faster growing systems.  Much like using lab rats as substitutes for studying health and people.  So that to me is really a possibility that is begging to be addressed. And I'm hoping to get a group of experts together to brainstorm about this across these different systems, across these different ecosystems from coral reefs, to kelp forests, to microbiologists, to rainforest guys, and even people studying maybe mowed lawns, because they're all addressing the same questions.  And they're probably having solutions that will interest each other, but no one's really meeting each other. They don't know each other for the most part, these different experts.


Michael Garfield (19m 30s):

So one of the things that you mentioned in that seminar and also links to, not that this is an advertisement for Chris Kempes, but you know…this whole episode…but you know, Chris just wrote a paper with Marcus Hamilton and Robert Walker on how, much as you see a rise in diversity among mammal species as you approach the equator, you also see an increase in the diversity of human cultures. And they were looking at this relationship between biological and cultural diversity in light of the scaling of social interactions as an environment becomes more and more diverse. And you've said this several times through your work about, and this is again, kind of pegging into what I hope we can talk about in the second half, which is the attractor basin of social living.  Why it is that we'd go for these and so one of the things I found interesting about the talk that you gave was about how you see a similar gradient from the forest floor to the canopy.  And that there is a significant difference…like you'll see organisms that have a range that extends great distances in either direction, North, South, East, West, but only maybe a few feet up and down. And that the tops of trees miles away look more like each other in some cases than from the top of the tree to the base of the same tree. So catch me if I'm getting this wrong, but it seems like a big piece of that is because more sunlight, but also more branches.  And so the frequency of life at the top is faster….more smaller animals having more kinds of interactions.


Mark Moffett (21m 13s):

Well, no one's actually proven this to any degree. It's very likely. Internally there are differences in biodiversity between systems. Like a mowed lawn for an ant may resemble a rainforest, but a mowed lawn won't have as many species. You do need that space of a rainforest to accommodate all that diversity. A biofilm can actually be quite diverse just because the organisms are small relative to its size in something like a stromatolite. But the actual location of this diversity has to do a lot with nutrients and energy cycling.  There's productivity advantages to being attached to a substrate. You can take in nutrients that are flowing by you in a way that say an algae free floating in the water can't as effectively.  So these different systems have nutrients and energy coming in in different ways. So, terrestrial plants have nutrients mostly coming from the roots and light from above. And that's true of sea grasses and certain algae, but for most algae and corals, everything's coming from above. Most algae don't even have roots and so the inputs of all these different valuable resources are coming from different directions depending on the system. And as they arrive, particularly, for example, in rainforests they’re a little different than most forests that we think about North America, because actually a lot of the energy is up there because, you probably have heard, that rainforest don't have much in the way of soil.  The soil is very thin and it turns out a primary source of soil and the nutrients in it for rainforest and cloud forest arrives in the canopy and the mist and rain and cumulates on the branches. So you can have a soil a foot thick in the top of a large tree. And I've seen, in redwoods, trees growing on the tops of trees out of the soil, in the canopy. So you can have a forest out of view from the ground. And so that structural stuff in connection with all these nutrients and where it's arriving, generates a lot of opportunities for diversity. And, those are often studied in terms of gradients or stratification, these aggregate properties, these nonuniform vertical distributions of different things.  So what that means is when you go up in a tree, the ecosystems changes much faster than it does when you walk horizontally on the ground in a rain forest, because as you go up, it gets brighter and brighter, more sun, and nutrients are different and often richer. And so you have to look past all this complexity, of course, this messiness, because forests are messy, trees are dying and living and you can’t often see these strata very readily, but when you tease it out, you see these patterns that are, that are absolutely fascinating. You see the same thing in a kelp community.  A kelp forest is said to have five layers, like a rainforest is usually described as having fire layers. No one knows particularly why, maybe it's the way that light gets filtered out and what's left by the time you get to the bottom is usually one or 2% in both cases. So these patterns are an important part of the whole question of where biodiversity comes from in the world, the patterns of three-dimensional structure, allowing one spot of the ground to contain a lot of diversity of habitats overhead.


Michael Garfield (24m 45s):

Your talk, as you alluded to right before we started recording here, that there are just, it's so rich, there's so many different trees, conceptually, that we can just jump from one to the next. And one of them that you lighted on for a moment in this seminar, which we've linked to in the show notes, is about how these little worlds, these microclimates that occur at different heights in the stratification of a forest ecosystem, or a canopy of biofilm in your mouth, that at different heights there's different little worlds.  And in a rainforest, you pointed to the fact that there are all of these organisms, jumping spiders and dart poison frogs that have these very, very small brains that are nonetheless navigating these labyrinthine typologies, you know, like how are they finding their way around?  And then how, because of their small size, how does physics operate on them differently? Some of these organisms have a sense for the Z-axis, how far they are off the ground and some of them don't. So that touches in on a couple of different things I hear discussed at SFI a lot, one of which is the adaptation of inferential systems. Like how does an environment shape the intelligence of an animal and the way the algorithms by which it orients itself and navigates its environment?  And then the other is kind of more or more basic question about, I forget, who it was that came up with…you probably remember that famous quote about if you throw a rat down a well versus if you throw a horse down a well,


Mark Moffett (26m 43s):

Oh yes, I know this one…it’s J. B. S. Haldane…You can drop a mouse down a thousand yard mineshaft, and on arriving to the bottom it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man is broken and a horse splashes. I say this during lectures.  The point there is that…one of the important points is that for most canopy species height doesn't matter. We're obsessed with height. We're afraid of heights. Humans don't look at things the way most canopy species do. It matters to us, but most canopy species don't care how high they are, what they care about is the resources there.  And sometimes those resources correlate with heights. So there are lizards that will stratify, they’ll be at different levels relative to the temperature. And it's hotter near the top of the trees, of course, so they tend to be high up.  Or they may prefer a certain kind of branch, a certain branch width. And it turns out after a hurricane, there's a guy named Doug Reagan who studied it after the hurricane, all the Anolis lizards came down much lower to the ground because the branches were there, they were broken up above. And so the lizards care about the width of the branch or the temperature and so forth, not the height. And the really interesting study there to show this was by, Francoise Shank, I believe her name is, in Switzerland. She compared rats versus marmosets determining how well they determined heights or knew how high they were. Rats, which live on the ground, kept a very close track with how high they were and a marmoset, which lives in the tree, didn't know what its height was, just didn't care. It just moved around where the resources were. So if you live on the ground, you're not used to this universe where height doesn't matter. You're dealing with resources that are just separated at different heights and so forth, and that's what's important to you. Another thing, if I just plow on here, is the architecture of all these things.  Because that's really fascinating. It turns out there are only about 30 ways of making a tree around the world. A friend of mine, Francis Hallé came up with these models originally, I think 26 of them…and I found a few more in the seventies.  And these structures determined, sort of, the architectures of different kinds of trees. So if you walk through a forest here and you decide which tree to climb, you're going to usually pick a tree that has the right configuration of branches and so forth…and canopy animals are presumably picking such trees. And then along the trees that are ideal you can get well beaten highways that go from tree to tree that have probably lasted for generations. We don't know how long they last and how often they change. And so those structural features determine the life of many of these creatures. The tree can pick its architecture presumably, or evolve an architecture to either attract certain animals or repel them. And the odd thing is though that we study rats and mazes, we pick these artificial mazes. What we need to do is understand the world of these species. We should be looking at tree architectures and seeing how different species respond to those kinds of mazes. And I think we will get some really interesting answers there, but in terms of how most of life treats three-dimensional space, no one has done that.  But some of the smartest animals turn out to be some of the smallest.  Jumping spiders is one of my favorite groups.  And jumping spiders are little spiders that don't build webs, they hop around.  And it turns out they have extremely good vision. And they'll hop through the vegetation and let's say one sees a fly that it wants to catch, it will scan around, look at all the different twigs around the fly, back up out of view and do what's called a detour, moving around until it finds another view of the fly, leaving the view of the fly entirely (most animals would forget where the fly was) and then it'll keep moving through the branches until it gets to the spot where it can leap and catch the fly. So it can actually move through some very complex spaces and remember all these things.  And jumping spiders can do amazing things, they're smarter than lions, tigers, and bears as far as I'm concerned, but that's certainly one of them.


Michael Garfield (31m 8s):

So yeah, this question of what life is like, what the world-space of organisms living in these environments seems to have a consilient pin back to the practical dimensions of human existence in the story that you gave about lizards sleeping on the ends of branches, on leaves, where they can sense predator vibrations. And, you know, I was thinking about that and about investment or like sensitivity to go out on a limb makes you vulnerable in some sense, like conceptually it's not a robust platform, but it's uniquely tuned to like a sensitivity to criticism.  I don't know, maybe this is a lark, but  it feels like I noticed you cited George Lakoff in one of your papers and Metaphors We Live By and his work on embodied metaphor is something that has really inspired me over the years. And he talks about the way that we think as terrestrial mammals, we think of up as more because we're used to seeing piles of things. And I was thinking, you know, if you were an, anole or an iguana, maybe you would orient yourself conceptually in terms of your distance from the trunk and the amount of vibration to which that makes you susceptible. I don't know. That's a very short shovel for a very deep well.


Mark Moffett (32m 32s):

There's like 50 things to say there, but one of them, to get back to the beginning, is why I saw canopies in this new way, in terms of thinking about them, in terms of all ecosystems, and that's the realizing that words create what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the topography of ignorance. If you think of canopies in terms of forests you don't realize you're being anthropocentric; you don't realize that ‘up’ can mean a mowed lawn to an ant or ‘up’ can mean a biofilm to a bacterium. And then the question of all these movements within it and how different animals and plants respond to it becomes critical.  How they navigate these geometries. There's a lot of overlap here with thinking about cities and so forth. Luís Bettencourt is someone I've corresponded with a lot about different things. And what's really fun is that plants act a lot like animals in rain forests in the canopies, there are philodendrons in your dentist's office that look quite bland, but in forests they actually wander through the trees. They lose their root and they stay a couple of meters long…and there's a guy named Tom Ray who studied the fact that they wander through the trees looking like a snake going in slow motion. And if they get to the top of the canopy and get stuck at the end of a branch, they will drop a long leader shoot over and try to reach the next tree literally again and again, reaching over until they can nab the other side and pull themselves over.  So they're like a snake crossing from one tree to the next.  And snakes in the canopy are very thin and for that reason, they have to get around between these gaps and also very thin so they can spread out their bodies and remove all the signals that they would have if they were thick bodied, so they can sneak up on lizards at the ends of branches without waking them up. So small lizards sleep on the twig tips, as you said, to keep the snakes from finding them and the snakes have to approach them very delicately to keep from vibrating the lizards. So all these things are interconnected. You know, it's hierarchical that part of the biodiversity of a forest is that things are within things are within things.  So there are sloths on trees on which there are certain mites on which there are smaller mites, you know, the worlds within worlds idea; that's part of this diversity. And the other part is Dan Jansen had a paper once on trees as islands. And indeed, I call it patchwork biogeography, each tree can have its own community of herbivores and so forth, different from the next tree. And on that basis, in fact, Terry Erwin came up with a first estimate of the number of species on earth, 10 million, far larger than anyone had thought before, because he had fogged the trees, knocked down all the insects using a fogger, pesticide, and found huge numbers of new species up there that varied from one spot to the next. And the recognition is that the forest is basically a patchwork of islands from one tree to the next, each one can contain a different community and all these different sub-communities within it and all the different layers within each spot and so forth.


Michael Garfield (35m 50s):

So now that we are standing here marveling at the similarity of patterns across scales, something that you were talking about, the intergenerational paths left by animals, between trees and along  trees, seems like a really excellent bridge, if you will, the metaphors themselves being the intergenerational pathways that allow us to cross from one region of this conversation to the next into your work on societies and human societies and adapting your insights from a lifetime of entomological study and ecological study to some of the deep questions about what it is to be human and what it is to live in a society.  And like specifically in this case, I'm thinking about the way that these scent trails and other forms of asynchronous communication create these structures in the environment that function as cognitive accessories or adjuncts. And when you participate in the informational structure of something that exists in this way beyond your lifetime, then the question of where the individual really rests, like where it is appropriate to coarse grain, if you will, your study of human beings makes it look less and less like it's actually the individual skin encapsulated person that we're used to thinking of as a human being.  And you start getting into just how much of me as an individual is actually scaffolded by the city that I live in or by the culture in which I participate. So I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about your book, first of all, The Human Swarm, and then how these two worlds, the human world and the world of canopy biology, linked to you as someone living in the concrete jungle of New York.


Mark Moffett (37m 44s):

Well, I'm a hands-on guy. I like to see things in the world, that's why Alfred Russell Wallace is sort of my idol and even Darwin for his years in the field. And so, I'm out there, I'm climbing the trees, I'm thinking about ants and their experiences, and I've also lived with different tribal groups and hunter gatherer groups. And I came up with some thoughts that I built into a paper a few years ago in the Journal of Human Nature and developed into this book.  To boil it down, being social is often being confused with being a society. People are talking about social and society as the same thing; they’re not the same.  Jane Goodall, when she started working on chimpanzees, didn't see any boundaries to them; they interacted off in the distance as far as she was concerned. And then suddenly in the seventies, after years of this belief, they started killing each other. And it was clear that there was a territorial boundary that was formed. And one society had turned into two. And it led me to the notion of a society as a definite group with a closed membership. It's a special kind of in-group versus out-group. So we're talking about societies as discrete groups, holding territories with a shared identity that separates them from other groups.  And those societies last through the generations and their membership is involuntary. So, you're born in society, usually expected to stay in that society and your grandchildren will be in that society. And so on that basis various animals have societies, and I argue that humans had societies since the beginning, starting with nomadic hunter-gatherers to horticultural tribes and chiefdoms to states. And so that was sort of the starting point of the book. And it was actually kind of a controversial point of view because even for sociologists, there's often talk of ‘imagined communities’, this idea by a guy named Benedict Anderson and Irish political thinker. And his idea was that societies, modern nations at least, were products of the mass media.  They were imaginary. But societies are all imaginary. Even for the chimpanzees Jane Goodall couldn't detect what was going on in their heads when they turned into two groups, but something switched and you ended up with two groups. And that's a really important thing that happened with that chimpanzee group. And it happens with human societies that split over time as well. So most biologists now are obsessed with network thinking, where there's a lot of talk about networks, not group thinking and societies can't be decomposed into networks. You couldn't ever figure out the boundaries of China through social networks. For one thing, there are lots of Chinese that interact with the Americans, for another thing, there might be hermits that never interact with anybody. So it isn't the cooperation that defines these groups. It's people's responses to group traits and their patterns of network connections or different things.


Michael Garfield (40m 54s):

So, in thinking about the analogy between ants and humans, a couple of things come out. One is the relationship between scaling of social interactions and diversity. And you raise an interesting question in some of your writing about why it is that this does not seem on the first pass to actually be a universal law. You give the example of Argentine ants that don't appear to be as specialized in these enormous super colonies that extend over vast regions of space. And in that case, there's something about the properties of that network that do not result in diversity.  And I'm curious if you have any thoughts as to why that is and whether that has to do with the third dimension of that colony or, or what


Mark Moffett (41m 43s):

Oh, n-dimensional ant colonies, I love it. But yeah, first of all, ants have very clear cut society boundaries, colonies. And most ants that we come across have nests. The one colony has one nest, and so it's localized, and you might have a leafcutter ant nest in central America with a million ants, but there are other species like this Argentine ants that can have billions of ants in the colony with clear cut borders, where they fight with the adjacent colonies, but you can move an ant from within those billions, you can move it for miles (because these colonies are huge) and drop it off again,  and it will be just fine because it's still home. It still has the identity of that colony. And it's the borders set by identity that determine one colony from the next.  Commonly, when you look at ants and you see for humans as society get bigger, and then in the case of humans also cities and dense local populations, you get more complexity, but the Argentine ants have very simple societies. They don't have division of labor with the workers doing different things. Very, very minimal if at all.  And they're not building a lot of infrastructure, not building complicated nest, they don't have assembly lines like leafcutter ants do to process food.  But that's also the case with some human societies, the Huns and Tartars of the Mongolian Plains had much simpler societies, despite the great expanse that they occupied. And so what that tells me, or suggest to me, is that you need a huge number of people to build a skyscraper, but that doesn't mean that a huge number of people needs to build skyscrapers. There are ways of living despite the size of the number in your population that are both simple and complex, successfully, as populations get bigger. So you can have simplicity in large societies and complexity and both can work.


Michael Garfield (43m 49s):

Is that like an energy density thing? I mean, I'm not sure about where this is in Argentina, but I know quite a bit of that area is rather arid. Do you think that it's for metabolic reasons that we don't see skyscrapers in this?


Mark Moffett (44m 4s):

No, no, it’s actually a different strategy. It's a very successful strategy. What you have, the Argentine ants, which are originally from Argentina, an invasive species from there, what they have is a very plastic way of doing things that becomes impossible as societies settle down and build all these structures and invest in all this stuff. And the Huns and Tartars were the same. They didn't invest in stuff. And that made them very mobile so they could move swiftly in all sorts of directions and take over space. So the Argentine ants can swiftly occupy any space that's available. They're expanding in California where they invaded us a hundred years ago and they've been expanding and expanding and they're still expanding on the new ground and they can move swiftly anywhere they want to go. They don't need any particular configuration, they just need holes in the ground.  As long as there's enough moisture and not too much moisture, they're fine. So this plastic approach to life is simply a different strategy. And one, that's not much appreciated since we're all living in cities now, so we tend to think that way, but it's much closer to mobile hunter-gatherer point of life, but scaled up.


Michael Garfield (45m 20s):

Hmm. So I guess just thinking about the conversation I had with David Krakauer back, it was one of my favorite episodes of this whole show, Episode 29, and we were talking about adapting to catastrophic change: mass extinctions and market crashes, and so on.  And time and time again, this pattern is…you know, a virus has a high rate of mutation because it's constantly moving into a new environment. So I guess, would that be the kind of thing that you're…you're saying that they've managed to stay essentially light on their feet, small organizational footprint, low bureaucratic overhead, in order to manage the possibility of all kinds of different environments into which they can migrate.


Mark Moffett (46m 4s):

I have a paper coming out in the Journal of Organization Design, looking at ants and human businesses, which was fun to write. And there are a number of different things going on here. And one of the important ones is the lack of leaders and hierarchies in ants in general; not just for the Argentine ant with these huge colonies, but ants in general, don't rely on leaders. They have temporary leadership at best. An ant can guide its fellows to food when it knows about food, but otherwise there isn't anything like that going on; there's no centralized control. And that means that ants respond locally and move quickly as a result.  It makes it very hard for competitors to bring down a colony. An ant looking at human organizational design would say, “Gosh, isn't the only thing I have to do is to blow up the White House and you'd all be in chaos.” And ants have no White House, they rely on various forms of exchanging information locally to get things done. That's why you can step on ants in your kitchen till the cows come home and they'll just keep coming. They won't be stopped.


Michael Garfield (47m 16s):

So, it was actually reading this paper that led me onto this, this line of questions for you. One of which is, I love your statement here: “As for the ants, inability to grasp the totality of what's happening in its colony. The same can be said for the CEO of a major company. Though clearly the CEO operates at a vastly higher plane of reasoning, he or she nonetheless relies on underlings to distill a sweeping view of the organization.”  And this is where we touch in on Jessica Flack’s work. Jessica Flack being the one who brought you in for this talk and her work on collective computation and studying primate hierarchies, and so on.  This question about, at what level is it right to actually start talking about the cohesive behavior of an organization?  And then how is that happening? You've mentioned in relation to this, that the limited behavioral repertoires of ants might represent a functional adaptation to colony life rather than be due entirely to limitations of brain size. I'm thinking about how the human brain has shrunk over the last 40,000 years as we've become…  (speak for yourself)…more and more quote unquote civilized, right? And that, again, it gets back to the way in which we're now embedding computational processes of living in society in the society itself that we're capable of…was that Robert Heinlein that said specialization is for insects. And yet human beings resemble insects, as you argue here, really quite a lot.  So, I'm curious what you think about all of this as it relates to some comments that you made recently, one of the excerpts from your book went up on Nautilus and you were talking about how a global unified human polity is probably a pipe dream.  That diverse human cultures intention with one another are probably here to stay. And I'd love to hear you unpack that a little bit as it relates to what it is a society is doing in this way about collective computation. It seems like what you're arguing is that society's intention with one another are necessary for an even greater sort of super social collective computation.


Mark Moffett (49m 33s):

Well, I don't know if they're necessary and they might have a happy byproduct of that, but you know, there's a core thing for me going on here and that we tend to be focused on cooperation. And I said social networks earlier, but rather than identity, and societies are about identity. That means your worst enemy can be in your society. And you can be best friends with someone in another society. And yet you still have a clear…your psychologists show how our brains compute these memberships these in-groups and out-groups, these differences, automatically. And these are important to humans. They're basic to our sense of who we are.  There's all kinds of negative ramifications when we have biases about these groups, but they're not going to go away. They're actually…our responses are built into us faster than the blink of an eye, you register people's group memberships and without you even knowing it. So once you have these groups, and very few organisms have what I call societies.  Sociality is very common. So you're going to have bats flying out of a cave by the millions or birds in these giant flocks, but they're not in societies. They're not a well-bounded group with a sense of membership. Once you have that, you can have all kinds of advantages that are particularly built in to having a set membership.  You can talk about group selection a lot more effectively, which is I think something that we need to look at more in terms of these group memberships.  We can look at all kinds of individual things that make a difference, like the talents of others in that group that can make up for your own deficit. If you hang around the guy or gal that is a good hunter, you might get more food if you're bad with the bow and arrow and so forth. And societies provide with these dependable memberships, they provide a stable foundation for close relationships of all kinds. So now, now Michael Corleone in The Godfather, I think Part Two said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” So having enemies in your society is part of the deal.  No society consists of a bunch of lovely friends that get along together, in hunter-gatherers right to societies of today; and we're talking about humans. And even ants can have what amounts to disputes in their societies. So societies aren't about cooperation. So intelligence is definitely something that doesn't have to do with being in a society. In fact, societies tend to give us the opportunity to be dumb. As you mentioned, brain size in humans has been declining for a while. There's a social brain hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, but those networks or friends that he's talking about that can grow as societies get bigger, are always within societies. Societies never consist of just those friends. And when you look at intelligence, he talks about brains getting larger as their networks of friends get larger, actually it's solitary species that are smarter than social ones.  And there are studies of bears and weasels and other solitary species compared to social species and our species in societies and solitary species tend to be able to tend to be much faster and solving puzzles, presumably because they have to be self-reliant.  Once you're in a big group and your neighbor can make bread and the other neighbor can give you a ride to work. And all you have to do is the one thing maybe you're really good at, like repairing shoes. There's a lot of less strain on your brain.


Michael Garfield (53m 12s):

So with respect to that, this is something we've talked about on the show before. I think I brought this up with Brian Arthur in Episode 14, because we were talking about global economics and how as we automate more and more of the economy, and as economic networks grow to coordinate activity all over the planet, that it obeys these broader scaling laws in that you see more and more of a network, as it grows, devoted to distribution of resources. And you wrote in one of these papers about how larger and larger ant colonies you see more and more lazy ants. And you mentioned research on how these, this acts like a reserve pool, that it allows the colony to respond, to shocks, like the army reserves where suddenly they may need a huge groundswell literally of, of new units.  So that's like robustness, right? The robustness of a system being kind of a measure of the replaceability of its components. (Right). But then there's this other part that I talked about with Brian Arthur, which was that it seems like the larger a system gets the more it has to push, actively push, nutrients to the ends of its network. And like you see like the heart of a whale relative to the size of its body compared to the heart of a mouse relative to the size of its body. And so there's this notion about like maybe as these systems get larger, they need to get lazier. And that's where he brought in the idea of universal basic income, like a giant heart that actually has to actively pump against the gradient of wealth condensation created by a network.


Mark Moffett (54m 55s):

Well, one thing about larger… Luís Betancourt and colleagues, like Geoff West and so forth, have studied how efficient larger and larger cities are. And that might apply to ant nests as well. And what you have as societies get bigger and bigger is you have the capacity of generating much more reserve energy and so forth. So you can support individuals that do less or do it only at particular times for particular reasons. So this big reserve force you see in many ant colonies could be drawn upon when there's a war and otherwise, you know, I'd like to be reincarnated as one of the lazy ants as there are other ants in the colony that work like the dam.  And you can watch those all day, at a small colony you can usually pick out which one it is. And if you remove it, not much happens for a while until someone else picks up the slack. And there's also the question, an interesting question of the organization within societies and Marilyn Brewer and then Linda Caporael are two psychologists who have written about the basic group sizes at which humans seemed to function. There were pairs of people like your spouse or your boss and you, there are small groups like hunter-gatherers, there’d be like a hunting party, and other would go out hunting that day.  And in modern terms it might be a wake place, collaboration between a few individuals. And then there's groups of like 30 or so, which is pretty much the size usually of a classroom or a department and a company and so forth.  And in hunter-gatherer times that was a society of a band; group of individuals that would camp together and they'd interact in other ways and these little hunting groups who go out during the day from the band. And then finally there are the groups of…these two psychologists describe groups of, you know, hundreds to thousands, which are like conferences, schools. And at that point you start developing relationships that are much less personal. They're more anonymous and symbolic. So you're kind of contented with this kind of abstract joy of being with fellow colleagues who study this thing at a conference. Most of the smaller groups are more personalized and those different size of groups might be processing things in different ways.  Collective computation goes on in different ways between these groups and it may be efficient or a hunter-gatherer ancestors that lived in these roving bands. Each band might be trying out new things and doing its own things and not necessarily communicating much with other groups that actually belong to the same society and come up with their own solution. So societies have this information structuring within them that may lead to greater efficiency of the whole.


Michael Garfield (57m 52s):

Yeah. So, you know, to, to double down on this question about the structure of society, as it serves information processing, I want to call back to conversations I've had with Eddie Lee on the seemingly ineradicable persistent nature of cascades of violent conflict in the world. Vicky Yang came on and talked about how we cannot help but create outgroups that human beings have this cognitive bias that works against moderates and gray area people, you know, people who want to occupy the middle of a conveniently easy binary grouping.  And then when I had Albert Kao on, we talked about the role of stalemates and how, you know, stalemates can improve the collective computation of a, of a society, which I think was a callback to earlier work that Jessica Flack and David Krakauer have done on conflicts of interest. So everywhere I look at any level, it seems like some amount of internal opposition, internal conflict is actually necessary to the success and the cohesion of these groups. And so I'm curious, given that there are so many different dimensions along which human society can cooperate or not what you see as the lessons from this analogy to what's possible for human beings.  I mean, I think you argue very compellingly that a sort of planetary unified government is not terribly realistic, but how do you imagine, especially given the way that our balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication involves, like you said, being a part of both geographic and intellectual communities, as well as societies that have these diffuse boundaries, where are the nodes of possibility as you recognize them?


Mark Moffett (59m 53s):

Well, there's obviously a bunch of ways to go there. One thing I will say though, and one of the conclusions of my book is that societies are always ephemeral across all species and through human history, there's a clear pattern of growth, but then break down and reorganization. So surviving populations of humans have gone through this umpteen times and every generation has thought they were in the most amazing society that would last forever. We all believe that. But in fact, I look at these things in the book in terms of changes in identity over time, I talk about societies and identity, as I mentioned, and those shifts and beliefs of who we are happen in different ways for hunter-gatherers and for people today.  But they are impossible to stop. We're constantly shifting our perceptions, even as we believe that those perceptions might be stable, they're shifting under our feet. And so those cycles are a part of human life. We're going to have to learn how to deal with that truth, I think, more than anything.  It's a struggle that we all have. And to get back to one thing you said though, and one of the interesting things about humans is that within societies, we have all kinds of personalities. You have the five aspects of human personalities that psychologists study, including how adventurous we are on so forth and there are all these personality types.  And we're looking at these personalities types and other species even ants now. And why do they exist? What is it about them? And I would argue that we need to study…that mixture of personalities, determine how societies function. There were actually some really interesting things I saw on hunter-gatherer literature from early people visiting hunter-gatherers, describing: here is a band of hunter-gatherers where all the friendly ones got together. And here was a serious group over here. They were all part of the same societies, but they were sorting themselves out by personality. So what does this add to the mix as it were of our social behavior? One thing I talk about in the book and I have it in a small essay for something called Project Syndicate online, which is a called Divided We Stand, which is on patriotism and nationalism.  And those are distinct, but variable expressions of how humans identify what their society and they're found through all societies. So the question is why do we have patriots and nationalists? And it's obviously a source of conflict today because nationalists tend to take on a much more rigorous view of who belongs and try to exclude outsiders and patriots tend to be nurturing and so forth. But it turns out that even ants have, within their colonies, certain species have been studied to have these sort of range of types with some individuals nurturing the young, spending their energy there and others constantly fighting.  And if you have too much of the fighters, the young starve, if you have too much of the nurturers parasites invade the colony, so you need both. So an interesting possibility for humans is that we have to have these mix of personalities for societies to function, even though they don't get along. Ideas emerge from our head, not through everybody getting along, all those neurons can be fighting each other for different views to percolate into our conscious minds. So the struggle part of the society, the dissonance in the society, can be just as important as the cooperation. And maybe these personalities are part of that.


Michael Garfield (1h 3m 42s):

That feels like it gets us right to the last question I had for you, which again draws from this as yet unpublished article that you wrote for the Journal of Organization Design, you address in that the, the role of errors, the role of mistakes, in novelty. So I'd love to hear a little bit about the errors in the collective computation of society and how that kind of, if you want to call it noise, that allows an evolutionary algorithm to jiggle itself into surprisingly beneficial outputs or whatever.  You know, how there's so many different ways that this kind of thing has studied, but I'm curious how you wrap your head around it.


Mark Moffett (1h 4m 30s):

Yeah. Well, ants make mistakes. It's hard to believe it when you watch them of course, they all look very perfect, but you know, ants make mistakes. What ants are often doing are things in series parallel. All these individuals are doing the same thing simultaneously, which allows for some sloppiness. I mean, if you live alone, you can't afford to make mistakes. But if there are a hundred individuals out forging at once and they're all following a trail out to food and one of them leaves that trail by accident, wanders off and finds a different source of food…it's a happy mistake. So this is one reason why big brains may not actually help ants.  And there's a paper Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control by Rodney Brooks, a friend I love, about making many small robots rather than one big cumbersome robot and ants have done that. They have all these tiny units. And if you look at an army and colony in Africa, all the neurons and all those ants in the same colony, add up to about the number of neurons in the human brain, but they've split it among all these individuals that are dumb, actually fairly smart in some ways, but pretty dumb. And yet this is a way in which they can get things done without investing in one big unit that would fail catastrophically on its own.  So mistakes, I think, occur as a useful attribute of a lot of systems. And are part of this question of a specialization and other questions we've looked at all relate to these issues as well.


Michael Garfield (1h 6m 14s):

I know some folks at Google that are probably listening to this and are aware that the affluence generated by the, just the sheer scale and the increasing returns to scale of a corporation of that size allows for a lot of money to get thrown at complete experiments, (R and D departments), right. Yeah, the R and D scale's at least the ability to bounce back from a mistake seems to scale super linearly with an organization, but as it is with ant colonies, so too, it is with human organizations that there are more small companies than there are large companies. So, the question, I guess, if we're going to leave this with a practical takeaway, is how, based on this analogy, do you imagine a smaller organization being able to optimize itself for error formation? Like casting back to the first half of this conversation and thinking about how a smaller animal can take a bigger dive out of a tree without breaking itself.  Do you see, do you see any strategies for being able to boost the reservoir or the capacity for innovation in a smaller organization?


Mark Moffett (1h 7m 26s):

Well, I can do a little bit of comparison with ants. And one thing that's really interesting about ants in general is the emergence of complexity as societies get bigger, in general, we talked about exceptions of ants that don't quite follow that rule, but in general, you've got all kinds of complexity coming about as societies get bigger and bigger and bigger.  And then a small ant colony, like a small hunter-gatherer group, like a small company, you have less ability to make mistakes. If you only have one person…if you're a military unit and you only have one person that knows how to operate the radio, because you're all specialists and that person gets hit by mortar fire, you may be doomed.   In the large society, you might have hundreds of people that know how to use that same radio set. So by definition, smaller groups have to be more conservative. But the bonus of being a human that makes us special is that we can collaborate between groups, including between societies and between corporations within societies. And in fact, human corporations rely on all kinds of collaborations. They don't make all their products from scratch. If you're making an iPhone, you're relying on hundreds of different companies to bring in the different goods and services required to put it together.  Ants can't do that, ants are absolutely nationalists, if you want to put it that way.  They attack all enemies. Everybody outside the colony is an enemy. So we can have outgroup friendships, including across all kinds of organizations that bind us together in ways that make things possible, that are unheard of in the history of life.


Michael Garfield (1h 9m 15s):

So I guess we have an extra layer. Fascinating. Mark, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time. I know it's been a long time in coming. I've been really looking forward to this. (Hey pleasure.) As parting thoughts and, you know, pick one or both. One is where is this line of inquiry taking you now? What are you excited about? And then another is what is your advice for people who get excited hearing you talk about this kind of thing, and want to learn more?


Mark Moffett (1h 9m 41s):

Well, I sometimes see graduate students now that walk out of the Biolabs blunder into a tree and wonder what hit them because they're stuck in front of some high tech equipment or building models, and they're not relating it to broader issues in the world. And I would say those techniques, the models are important, but to try to go out there and build these connections between these disciplines.  Whether it's different parts of ecology as I've been trying to do with canopy biology, and I hope to be able to do eventually by getting a group together to actually discuss some of these issues.  Or with society's big issues, like what causes groups to stay together and fall apart.  And those are questions that transcend psychology and anthropology and biology, and gets us back to my mentor, E.O. Wilson's idea of consilience, which you brought up, but which is trying to bring those disciplines together around common goals and themes to develop new ways of thinking and solutions to problems. Think broadly, don't be afraid to think broadly, that's it in a nutshell.


Michael Garfield (1h 10m 56s):

Excellent. Well, from here on my tiny narrow branch emits the vast perfusion of cool ideas, I want to thank you for being on complexity podcasts.


Mark Moffett (1h 11m 9s):

Yeah, thanks for giving me a random walk through various things that was fun.


Michael Garfield (1h 11m 14s):

And I really hope that you get to make it back out into the field this year.


Mark Moffett (1h 11m 20s):

That's true. I had a lot of plans. I'm I was another aspect of your question. I was planning to look at the society is of a variety of species in different parts of the world, which, you know, as I say, I like to get my hands dirty and I'm in New York now, so my hands are much too clean. They're actually Purelled. It's horrifying.


Michael Garfield (1h 11m 39s):

Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts, visit