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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Not top down

You can have order in a flock of birds or a society without having a dictator

The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between: there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than others in which way the flock turns.

Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of Oxford, say:

The authors say that a hierarchical arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in other species too," Biro says.

That matches neatly what people like Joe Henrich have begun to conclude about how human society works. Nobody's in charge. No single leader decides what's going to be invented or eaten or laughed at. But certain prestigious individuals have more say than others.

Right, so can we now get away from the absurd dichotomy between autocracy and anarchy? If you say you favour bottom-up, emergent solutions with nobody in charge, because that's how both evolution and economic progress (and the internet) generally work, then then most people react by saying: well, somebody's got to be in charge or you'll end up with anarchy. No.