Fireflies and Group Theory

Nature has a lot to tell us about the world we live in. And one of those lessons came to me recently from the fireflies in Congaree National Park.

Photinus carolinus is a species of firefly that has adapted to blink in unison with each other rather than the typical random flashes most people see in their back yards. I was recently able to see this in Congaree National Park.

The leading theory about why this happens has to do with so-called “group selection”. It is the theory that by doing what is good for the group, an individual can stand to benefit the most. There are (contested) theories that evolution is effected by this principle. Basically, if the fireflies blink together, they have a higher chance of attracting at least one mate to at least one member of their group.

This idea about optimizing outcomes by playing to the needs of the group is an important one for all of us to recognize. Musicians, I think, know this intuitively. In order to play effectively in a chamber group or an orchestra, the needs of the ensemble have to be placed above the needs of the individual. One of our most common critiques of groups is their “sense of ensemble” or how they play together in a group.

When I first started backpacking, I learned about “whip-lashing“. If the faster members of the group charge ahead of the slower members, they eventually have to wait a long time for the others to catch up. This is boring for the faster hikers and spawns resentment. Furthermore, the slower hikers never get a chance to rest because they are constantly catching up. If the group finds a speed that works for everyone, they are better off.

In a world that is increasingly competitive in many ways, we tend to lose the forest for our own personal tree. As musicians, we compete against hundreds of people for jobs and most of our schooling trains us to differentiate ourselves. As members of a social media age, we are all under pressure to post a certain quality of selfies every now and then.

Differentiation and personal growth is great. We just need to keep it in perspective and remember that we are members of a larger conglomerate. Everything we do is not only to help ourselves but also to help our communities grow.

I am convinced that this is the pathway to success in our careers and in this world. If we can find a way to help ourselves through helping our communities, I think we will be on an amazing path.

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