December 30, 2004

Lemmings

Here is a pretty cool story regarding group behaviour. It’s slightly random in nature, but is definitely food for thought if you’re in the right sort of mood. I remembered it after reading the following quote from Bridget Jones' blog: “Why, in a world when we're programmed to find different traits attractive, do we feel compelled to conform to some sort of 'norm' that doesnt exist?” The story has no well defined moral, but that just makes it more interesting:
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It is in the nature of the lemming, a small, furry vole-like creature found in the northern reaches of Europe, Asia and America, to make hay whilst the sun shines. That is to say that when food is in abundance, these gregarious creatures breed at an extraordinary rate, their consequent over-population causing them to have to migrate in search of new food supplies. Migration, normally in a southerly direction, takes place en-masse, and is not without the hazards that are often tobe found accompanying mass movements in all species. In particular, aswarm of lemmings – seemingly seized by some group insanity – will attempt to cross almost any obstacle in their frenzied struggle to
survive.

It was during one such migration that Leonard Lemming found himself alongside the group leader, William, at the head of a swarm of five-hundred thousand approaching the north bank of the river Rhine. The swarm had been on the move almost continuously for six days and they were all panting heavily and close to exhaustion.

"Forward!" urged William, "We're nearly there. Soon we'll be across the river and there'll be grass and roots and bulbs enough for everyone. Join me in our chant! All together now brave brothers and sisters: 'We are lemmings, lemmings all, All together we won't fall.'"

The group nearest William took up the chant; soon it spread through the entire swarm, the members seeming to run faster and with more determination as they took up the call.

"We're never going to get across that river William," said Leonora Lemming, Leonard's partner, surveying the vast expanse of The Rhine. "Look at it. It's huge, deep, fast-flowing and probably freezing cold as well."

"We have no option but to try," retorted the leader urgently. "We are lemmings, and lemmings have evolved specifically to be able to face such circumstances. This is what it's all about. We are brave, we have a tremendous group cohesion and will to survive. We need food, so we have to go forward. I'm not saying that all of us are going to get
across the river, but one or two might and that will be enough for the continuation of this branch of the lemming tribe."

"None of us is going to get over that," chipped in Leonard. "It's stupid to even try, and I'm not. If we hadn't been so foolish overpopulating in the Spring, so profligate, we wouldn't be caught in this situation now. There would have been plenty of food for everyone and no need to face almost certain death."

Leonora nodded her head, but William scowled angrily and spat. "We are lemmings. That's what lemmings do, and this now is what lemmings do. Do you not understand?"
"Oh we understand all right," offered Leonard quietly, "we just don't see the point."

"The point is that every step in our history, our evolution, our individual and collective consciousness and traditions have brought us here to this riverbank. And you turn your backs upon it. So be it. If you are real lemmings, you are with us; if you are against us, you are no longer worthy of the name of a lemming and, as leader, I banish you forever from our clan. Stand aside you cowardly non-conformists." William turned and addressed the waiting multitude.

"Are we lemmings?" he exhorted?
"Yes," roared the crowd, almost as one.
"And do we stand together?"
"Yes!"
"And what is our call?"
"We are lemmings, lemmings all," the crowd began, "all together we won't fall. We are lemmings, lemmings all. All together we won't fall. We are lemmings, lemmings all. All together we won't fall." the noise rose to a deafening volume. William climbed atop a small knoll adjacent to the edge of the embankment and raised his paw to urge quiet.

"Brothers and sisters," he began in a commanding voice, "we stand here before our destiny. It is our duty to cross this river. It may look formidable, but our ancestors encountered and conquered equally daunting obstacles. We are the living evidence!"
The crowd cheered. "We will prevail!"

The crowd roared in approval and spontaneously began to chant, hypnotising themselves with the persistent pulse of the rhythm. William turned towards the river and lifted his paw in readiness to command the forward movement. The swarm formed up behind him chanting excitedly and insanely. This was it.

Leonard and Leonora drew to the side, and were surprised to find they were joined by a group of about twenty others who had listened carefully to their debate with the leader. Soon, the chanting reached a crescendo with William's strident voice clearly audible above that of the mob as his second in command beat out the rhythm on an empty drum. Suddenly, he dropped his paw and plunged forwards with a scream. The members of Leonard's group held on to the grass for dear life such as to prevent themselves being carried away by the rush of bodies surging forward over the edge. Harold, a younger member of the dissident group watched his fellows plunging into the cold river and dying in their droves. Some just drowned, others froze, a few struck out for the far side but became exhausted before they had swum a quarter of the way across; he looked for William, but couldn't recognise him in the carnage – hardly surprising since William and his friends had sneaked away on a ledge hidden below the edge of the precipice.
Harold's evolutionary conditioning, his group loyalty – fired by the chanting – and ingrained habitual behaviour drew him forward towards the edge of the embankment and beyond to almost certain doom: he wanted to offer his support and join his comrades, yet his natural intelligence and deepest survival instincts urged him to turn back, to fundamentally review his ways.

He stood, poised on the edge, caught in the lemming's dilemma.


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