I’ve begun to consider the starling murmuration as a metaphor for human culture. It’s a spontaneously self-organizing group comprised of individuals that appear to be completely autonomous but nevertheless both respond to one another and contribute to the shape and flow and direction of the whole. The individual’s behavior doesn’t make sense outside the context of the group’s flight, and vice versa.

Rather than posit the individual and the culture as opposing forces (as we often do when talking about the relationship between individual and culture), I see them also co-creating each other. Neither is forcing itself on the other, per sé, but both influence each other’s behaviors.

Wanting to know more about the mechanics of this phenomenon, I found the following clip, which describes the factors that scientists believe determine the behavior of the individuals in the flock. In a nutshell, the motion of each bird is determined in response to the behavior of the nearest 7 birds, and according to three rules.

In future posts, I want to examine how this flocking phenomenon might be relevant to human behavior in relation to human culture.

Of course a neighborhood or school is not a flock, but it seems fair to say that the individual and the culture are not entirely opposite, contradictory, or polar forces. How much of our behavior is somehow purely internally, autonomously motivated … and how much is an expression of identification with our ambient culture?

The forces of culture have inherent appeal for the individual seeking belonging and efficacy. But show me the starling that falls asleep at night singing “I’ve gotta be me.” I suspect there has to be either: 1) a sense of unquestioned identification with the culture, or 2) willingness to submit for a perceived gain … for the individual to be fully “swept up” in the norms of the group.


All of this murmurating calls for a collective noun that refers to a group of  humans.

Some favorite collective nouns: a Flock of Sheep, a Murmuration of Starlings, a Pod of Whales, a Murder of Crows

… how ’bout:

a Masquerading of Humans

I just made that up.

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