Ballots for Bison

 By Aaron Williamson

Most people would agree that the universe is a fascinating place, one full of wonder.  The challenge that science faces is in discovering how the material world operates, including  the organisms that inhabit it.  If science is about the discovery of the living and material world, and faith is about man’s response to God’s work in it, then we have much to learn from each other.  If people of faith believe that all creation is a reflection of God, then it is possible to gain a better understanding of Him viewed through the lens of scientific discovery.

In the January 2016 edition of Scientific American there is a short piece on the subject of animal behavior entitled, “Ballots for Bison: A Bison herd moves in the direction chosen by most of its constituents” by Jason G. Goldman.  He discusses a study by ecologist Armandine Ramos of the French National Center for Scientific Research in which Ramos spent some time studying the herd patterns of European bison and how they choose which direction to move.  He found that as the bison spent long hours grazing in a particular spot, each individual bison would orient his body in the direction that he preferred.  This orienting of its body, Ramos found, is akin to casting a silent vote for the direction of the herd.  Eventually, one bison would make a move in a certain chosen direction.  If it happened to be the majority direction, the entire herd will follow suit and begin to move.  If the bold bison goes in a minority direction, he will only get a few followers who will eventually return to the herd, allowing another bison to take the lead in the majority direction. 

The collective herd moves together, but with each individual bison having a silent vote.  Ramos found that any bison can become the leader by simply being the first to move in the majority direction.  Therefore, there is a kind of democratic operation, where the majority rules.  All of their movements are based on these principles.  Goldman postulates that this study could help reduce conflict among farmers if a collar could be outfitted on the likely bison leaders designed to dissuade the herd from invading an undesirable field.

Even though bison seem to move aimlessly, going whichever direction they choose, the Bible tells us that God directs people’s steps.  “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (Prov 16:9).”  The author of the article saw parallels between the “democratic” actions of the bison and the majority rule of our democratic societies.  There are many interesting themes to ponder here.  The bison can teach us something about community, as each individual supports the collective herd and contributes to its direction.  

In ourpolitical climate, one cannot help thinking of our current situation.  In the midst of a campaign to choose our future leaders, do we really exercise as much freedom of choice as we pretend to?  Or do we aimlessly follow whoever is the loudest voice in front?  I am reminded of the way that politicians try to garner votes by claiming to speak for the majority.  We too often sit on the sidelines waiting for a great leader to emerge.  The majority rule can either bring positive change such as the fight for civil rights, or a hellish nightmare like the riots that bring violence to our cities. 

Psalms 32:8 says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.”  As we try to determine our country’s leaders, we should heed the warnings of Scripture.  It is dangerous to blindly follow leaders, and put faith in their empty words.  No political leader is going to solve all the problems in our world or nation.  Our only true deliverer is Jesus Himself, who brought a message of peace and love for others in common humanity.  He was willing to lay down his life for our deliverance.  1 John 3:16-19 says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us love not in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 

There are loud angry voices trying to convince others that only these individuals have the solutions and the guts to do what is necessary.  These politicians foment anger, fear, hatred, and bigotry.  Let us not allow our passions or our fears to make us blind to the spirit of division that is clearly apparent.  The bison are able to move in common unison working together to go where they will.  Science has shown us that what at first glance appears to be mindless wandering is in fact a very purposeful and organized system of interconnected unity. 

In our current political climate we can learn much from the bison by working together in a spirit of peace.  Just as each individual bison casts their silent vote for the direction the herd moves, so each of us can help determine the direction our country is moving by which leaders we choose to follow.  Let us choose men and women of good character who will work towards unity, and are willing to lay down their lives for the other.