The human superorganism in Big History

  • Tuesday, June 30, 2015 5:21 PM
    Message # 3414766

    E.O. Wilson has a book called The Social Conquest of Earth in which he argues that humans form a 'superorganism'. He believes group-level selection has helped shape it. In other people's work on the evolutionary origins of multicellularity, which occurred independently multiple times, they argue that single celled organisms go through evolutionary stages where they first form a colony, then the individual cells specialize, then there is an alignment of fitness of the single celled organism with the multicelled progenitor, (might be called a superorganism at this stage) then an 'export of fitness' phase where the organisms transition to obligate multicellularity. Its interesting to think of humans as being in the midst of playing out this same sequence of phases, and that the next threshold for us is to become like individual cells in a single body. 

  • Wednesday, July 01, 2015 5:39 AM
    Reply # 3415340 on 3414766
    Lowell Gustafson (Administrator)

    In this progression, some notice that most individual cells give up the ability to reproduce the organism.  Eggs and sperm cells become specialists in that, with other cells in a supporting role in so far as reproduction goes.  Most cells become so committed to the reproduction of the larger entity that they forgo their own.  I know a number of people who contribute greatly to society and have no biological children of their own.  I wonder if there is an analogy?

  • Wednesday, July 01, 2015 7:03 PM
    Reply # 3416229 on 3414766

    Interesting, Lowell. Maybe some people are the equivalents of specialized tissues. Organizations of like-minded people are organs. You all are neural tissue. Universities are brains. My Midwestern in-laws are connective tissue. The police are the immune system.

    One thing that intrigues me is that from the perspective of a single cell, the whole body would seem like a god - so much more powerful than the individual cell as to seem omnipotent, so much more intelligent as to seem omniscient. Compared to competing and struggling as a single-celled organism, being protected and cared for as part of a multicelled body would seem like a heaven.

  • Monday, January 09, 2017 8:36 AM
    Reply # 4517499 on 3414766

    I, too, have found this multicellularity/superorganism thought tracery interesting. 

    Should we colonize the moon, and there become self sustaining (necessary qualifier?), would human socialization have budded? 

    Should the moon colony divide, and found a new moon colony, would it have reproduced as an organism? 

    Should multiple colonizations of the moon from Earth, be called reproductions of founder earth organism? 

    Now  let us note that specialization within a system -- a set of interacting elements -- may proceed even without the 'budding', or reproduction.

    And we now see that indeed the social system, the 'super organism' is so obligately interdependent in its parts -- its specialized parts -- as to be, as to its elements, necessary for the elements' existence.

    So even now we are asked by some of our 'brain' elements to submit happily and in awe to the superorganism, to delegate to its and its directing elements our loyalties and our devotion. 

    Do 'dictators', therefore,  really ask too much? It is true that if they err, 'we' the elements perish. But is that not so as to any organism with a central nervous system?

    And is this custom of channelling our elements into specialized vision, hearing, decision systems by education and selection, and then directing our decision systems by element quora, rather quaint and idiosyncratic, among biological systems, so to speak?

    Interesting thought pathways, to me.

    Jack Pearce


  • Tuesday, January 10, 2017 5:03 AM
    Reply # 4525525 on 3414766
    Lowell Gustafson (Administrator)

    This all seems to be part of emergent complexity.  The development or evolution of the most complex matter in the universe of which we are aware, our brains, may have been in a feedback loop with our social relationships. Lacking claws, shells, wings, etc, our major ability is that of social organization.  Hominins who could organize most effectively had a better chance of surviving.  Those with the best understandings of each other were best able to organize.  That took each person having a "theory of mind" and  perhaps empathy.  The result has been kinship groups, villages, cities, nations, empires, and global internet communities.

    People have long talked about "the body politic."  Corporatists see the connection between biological bodies and social groups.  Some people start placing greater value on the group than their own personal interest or even survival.  Parents, soldiers, and a variety of committed believers see themselves as something beyond themselves that is more important than themselves.

    Does the body become suspicious of an oppressive brain because its three pounds use 20% of the body's available energy?  Brain tissue cannot walk, build houses by itself, or do anything else but send messages around.   Do  full time social / political leaders actually enable complex social / political organisms to survive and develop, or are they parasites?

  • Tuesday, January 10, 2017 9:34 PM
    Reply # 4534633 on 3414766

    Lovely question, Lowell, in the last para. 

    I suppose my off the top response is "both value adders and parasites", but it may take evolution through competition to sort out how much of each.

    For example, the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia now presents this question full flower, public stage. They are put to the test by evolving oil market dollar caps on revenue, pressed upon by a growing and dependent but undertrained population. Young Prince "MBS" has a plan to satisfy the population and maintain the family's monopoly of social organization control. The world is watching and assessing probabilities.

    Did Hillary lose the election, and did Brexit occur, because the muscles and tendons in the respective societies lost confidence in the capabilities of the "Davos Man" organ, of which Hillary and Cameron were parts?

    But if so, will the obviously confused and unschooled Trump prove to provide  a better set of circuits?

    Sorry to descend to current social commentary, but your question is well posed and thus provocative. I might come back with some more-theoretical thoughts.

    Jack Pearce  

  • Sunday, January 15, 2017 5:53 PM
    Reply # 4549477 on 3414766

    Hi Karren, this is not the first time you have alluded to this idea that we might be to future (or perhaps even existing) entities as our cells are to us. This would certainly tally with cosmic precedent where the fundamental dynamic by which things come into being is one of assembly of existing cosmic entities in one way or another, so unless the cosmic dynamics which gave rise to us, the humans, have come to a conclusion in us, we will assemble to form future cosmic entities, if precedent is anything to go by. The dynamics of assembly can be broken down into two broad groups, those that operate through reproductive mechanisms and those that don’t. Progress in the human realm is available to both groups. We may look to both when it comes to us progressing with respect to the dynamics that have given rise to us.

    Each phase of the narrative that gave rise to us - the pre-atomic, the atomic, the molecular, the cellular and the multi-cellular is characterised by a different mode of assembly of existing entities and unless that dynamic has come to a conclusion in the phenomenon that is an individual human (do we have any reason to believe that this is the case??) then it is likely to continue by other modes of assembly where we are elements in the process (and we are likely to participate in the process)

    Lowel, you mention the cosmic dynamic or progress to entities of increasing complexity. Again, at this point I feel like as if I have been banging on about this very simple point for some time now, but the reality seems to be that the cosmos that has given rise to us, (its most complex offering to date of which we know) has involved progress to a CONSTANTLY DECREASING NUMBER of increasingly complex entities?

    Is this relevant?? It may or may not be, but it certainly gives a useful way of analysing much of what we encounter in the human realm. We can learn much from the analysis of the collective terms that we use. Do we think of the human as a collective term? No, but none the less a human is a collection of cells (at least). We know that a choir is a particular kind of collection of humans so by necessity there are less choirs than humans. Much of what we do as humans seems to involve us shifting focus on the unity that things present above the “manyness” of which they are composed. If you ever sang in a choir you will be more than familiar with this.

    There are less molecules than atoms, less cells than molecules and so on. An important stage in the development of any area of study involves the emergence and clarification of collective terms within the domain. The word “element” has always been with us, but it assumed a new and significant application in the study of chemistry in the 18/19 centuries.

    I may want to talk about the entities that stock the narrative that has given rise to us, the humans, starting with the big bang. Lets say at the very least I may want to talk about atoms and molecules together. Is there a collective term that I can use?? What if I want to talk about atoms molecules, cells and multi-celled organisms?  If I want to talk about apples and bananas I can refer the conversation to the collective term “fruit”. But Is there a collective term that I can use if I want to refer the sequence of entities that has given rise to me and my kind? Why would a collective term be necessary? Perhaps because something needs to be said about them collectively. Karen, in addressing myself to the question that you pose in the opening comment on this thread I find the need for application of such a collective term. The one I use is the term “Priunit”. A priunt is any kind of entity that has lead from the big bang to us (atoms, molecules, cells multi-celled organisms)

    Karren, we may extend your question as follows; is it likely that we as humans are to future entities as our cells are to us, as molecules are to cells, as atoms are to molecules, as sub-atomic particles are to atoms. (as hydrogen is to all other atoms!!)

    If you have a collective term it is much easier to talk about the narrative to which the term pertains. What can be said about the narrative of priunits?  Firstly, it is the narrative that has lead to the emergence of the human in the cosmos, secondly, the genetic/evolutionary is a phase in the narrative, preceded by the molecular and the atomic (before that the pre-atomic). Perhaps superseded by a phase beyond the classical evolutionary as characterised by what we encounter in the human realm. We can also say that as the narrative has unfolded the nature of the average priunit becomes increasingly complex.  We can say that each priunit is composed of an assembly of priunits from a prior phase. But also, that the total number of them is decreasing. Of course, it depends on how you count. By one mode of counting we can say that the number is actually increasing. My point is that the cosmos keeps on producing colective domains with less and less entities in them (less living things than cells etc) The fundamental cosmic narrative could be seen as a journey through the concept of unity.

    On the face of it, this is not obvious. For example, when we look at the realm of the living, we see a significant proliferation of life on earth. But of course, the more living things you have, the less overall priunits you have.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about the narrative that has given rise to is is that we are such that we can consciously participate in its continuation from where it has left us. Much of the conversation that centres around progress in the human realm centres around the possible impact of what we might call “classical” evolution on that progress. We know of course that classical evolution has been the main player in the emergence of the human. The question is, whether or not classical evolution is the only thing to consider when examining the dynamics by which humanity progresses. If we could choose to progress by the dynamics of classical evolution alone, would we?? Are we equipped to choose one way or another?  It seems to me that much of what you witness in human behavior and all that goes with it involves humanity undertaking to operate and progress beyond the dictates of the classical evolutionary dynamics that gave rise to it in the first place. Is it possible that we are making this choice in the hope of favouring the presiding narrative, that began with the big bang over its most recent/well documented phase, the classical evolutionary? We could say that much of what we encounter in the human realm involves a play between classical evolution and the narrative of priunits. This has given rise to much by way of moral and legal codes, both religious and secular. Also, the fundamental imperative towards a state of “oneness” and its relationship to an element central to many religions can not be ignored.

  • Monday, January 16, 2017 12:44 AM
    Reply # 4549845 on 3414766

    Jack, several useful perspectives here. Keep digging.

    Jack Pearce

  • Monday, January 16, 2017 6:47 AM
    Reply # 4550399 on 3414766

    Thanks Jack. Will do!!

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