A colleague of mine, Michael Di Leo, recently gave me the wonderful little book This Will Make You Smarter, a series of short essays by a variety of ridiculously brilliant scientists and thinkers. Reading the book is like walking through the Smithsonian: display after display of radiant little gems.
One of my favourite essays is by Nicholas Kristakis, who teaches medicine and social science at Harvard. In it, he extols the virtues of holism, which is “colloquially summarized as ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts'”. Putting it more scientifically, he describes holism as “the abiding recognition that wholes have properties not present in the parts and not reducible to the study of the parts”.
Holism abounds in nature. There are approximately ten or more different elements required to form DNA, the unit of life on this planet. DNA is a Holism, a spectacularly perfect coming together of many different elements in a configuration that has, well, changed the face of this planet many times over.
Adopting a holistic lens when observing the behaviour of systems is a must, otherwise one can miss key patterns that emerge from (or govern) the system. You cannot understand or appreciate the elegant behaviour of flocks of birds by studying them as individual organisms. No amount of study in this regard would yield you any useful insights. Instead, one must look at the flock as though it were a single organism—and then the magic of its behaviour begins to reveal itself.
Similarly, societies of humans move as Holisms, as though they were single entities with a unified consciousness. Which they are. When pundits or politicians weigh in on the “mood of the country”, they’re making reference to this collective mind. The instantaneous and unified behaviour of fans in a football or hockey stadium should give you more clues to this.
So, rather than polling or surveying thousands of people to determine what direction a society will take, we’re better served by watching the behaviour, and listening to the emotions of the collective—the whole group. Listen to it as though it were a single consciousness and it’ll whisper its secrets to you.