Superorganisms, part two

What happens when a small desert creature wants to drink from a human swimming pool but the water level is too low to reach without risk of falling in? Well, a skunk dips its tail into the water, hauls it out, then slaps it onto the pavement surrounding the pool, whereupon it licks up the water from the pavement.

Of course.

Until you’ve watched a skunk doing this, you haven’t truly fathomed the full majesty of Mother Nature’s splendor. (It is very loud—all that slapping of the tail against water and pavement—it calls the attention of the humans, not that that bothers the skunk any. It isn’t afraid of anything).

But this essay is about a different kind of skunk. I am here reviewing biologist D. S. Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist? (and you can see how skunks aren’t built for altruism). They are built for smelling really bad, which makes them a good metaphor for people who do the same. A skunk in this sense is a person who selfishly takes advantage of the altruistic deeds of others but refuses to pitch in and do one’s fair share of the altruistic acts.

Yes, and pity the poor rats who, when the water level is low, cannot likewise get a drink from the pool with their small hairless tails. No sympathy from the skunks, thank you very much.

Yet for a biologist, this issue of altruism turns out to be a particularly hoary one. That is because according to Darwinism—according to the survival of the fittest—the altruists should be losing in this business of survival while the skunks should be ruling the world. (And hey, maybe they are).

But seriously, how could self-sacrifice, as in altruism, have evolved via the survival of the fittest?

Wilson argues that we are using the wrong metaphor. The issue should not be about skunks who refuse to do their share but about the social insects who do. The way that human altruism can survive the survival of the fittest is the way that ants and bees can survive their sacrificing for the colony or the hive. But how is that?

It has to do with how ants and bees can be seen as superorganisms. And Wilson’s argument is that culture makes us humans act “like” we are in a superorganism (without us actually being in one). That means that we share resources and utilize a division of labor. But also, it means that culture tries to make everyone participate, without exception.

In other words, culture makes us all act like good little ants and bees, and that saves us from not only killing each other but (since some amount of working for the common good is valuable) it saves those who labor for the collective from being eliminated via the survival of the fittest. The reason that they are saved is that, in a superorganism, everyone is equally making sacrifices.

That is why Wilson argues so strenuously—it is half of his book—that a proper function of a culture is precisely this way that it can coerce conformity over individual behavior. That is what keeps us from going extinct as a species, Wilson believes.

Yet humans are known for being (unlike ants and bees) individually inventive, resourceful, and imaginative. And arguably that also is an aspect of why we prosper as a species and do not go extinct. Is squelching that creativity really what culture—and cultural evolution—is about?

For the opposing view, I am reminded of Einstein’s famous quip, “A question that sometimes drive me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”

Is forcing conformity over nonconformity really what saves humanity?

Let’s look closer at superorganisms.


Superorganisms are not an intuitive concept, and they are not universally recognized in biology. But with that warning, it can be fun to consider them.

A superorganism is when many macro-state organisms are altogether considered to be just one individual. It is basically extending the process of saying that many cells make an organ, and many organs go together to make a body, and now we can add that many bodies go together to make a single superorganism.

But wait a minute. Does that mean that, when we see a beehive, we should think of it, not as a bunch of bees, but as all one guy out there, with some bees (some of its parts) coming out of it?

Yes, that’s the idea. I find it more believable if we look at it this way:

Consider the point of view of, say, a white blood cell as it goes roaming around a body looking for invaders to attack. In a way, the WBC acts like a free agent as it wanders and attacks, not unlike an ant or a bee as it does its work. But the WBC belongs to, and works for, the body it inhabits. And could the same be said of a colony of ants or a hive of bees? To us humans, we distinguish between the ant and the colony. But does an evolutionary process likewise know the difference between individuals roaming what we call a body and individuals roaming the wider world?

To acknowledge that evolution might treat them as the same is to see ants and bees as possibly belonging to a larger organism, the superorganism. (The invading space aliens in the book and movie Ender’s Game were said to be a superorganism).

And sure, we can see how that might explain how altruism could evolve in humans. If culture is thought of as a larger body that we move around in, then acts of selflessness working for the greater good are, from an evolutionary standpoint, no different than acts of WBC’s working to protect the body they are in.

But what if most of us do not think of ourselves as living inside of some other guy whom we are part of? Then we are back to the metaphor of the skunks and to how everybody is in it for oneself in the struggle for survival.

But remember, Wilson’s argument is that culture is only “like” a superorganism. It makes us do the things that superorganisms do: a division of labor, a sharing of resources, and yes, everybody participating so that no individual is at a competitive disadvantage because of sacrificing for the greater good. (So talk about seeing a bigger picture. Culture is only “like” being inside of some other guy).

But that is how Wilson arrives at the notion that a proper function of culture is to coerce uniform behavior among what is inside of it.

the biology

At this point, I am only going to mention how this way that Wilson sees culture as being like a superorganism could be taken as he having invented his own new theory of cultural evolution. Call it “the superorganism theory of cultural evolution.” But to go deeply into that would require comparing it with other theories of cultural evolution, which is too long a subject for this post, and it would require going into sociobiology (not my favorite subject). So I will let it go at just this mere mention.

What I do want to consider now is the biology itself. How does Wilson think a superorganism can evolve in the biological sense? Why should bees sacrificing for the hive be any better off than other forms of sacrifice?

Wilson is an advocate (I think the chief advocate) of what is called “group selection.” That means that, instead of it being individual organisms that live or die in the survival of the fittest, it is the group that lives or dies altogether. What counts for evolution is not the fate of each ant or bee but rather the fate of the colony or hive.

So sure, we can see how group selection can account for the survival of the collective, since it is the collective that competes with other collectives and either lives or dies, regardless of how the self-sacrificing members of the collective turn out. (So updating Darwinism for group selection is how Wilson would modify Darwinism to account for the survival of superorganisms).

The only trouble is that group selection is not a confirmed theory in biology; it is controversial.

In biology, there is an ongoing debate over where the site of natural selection is located. Is it the genes which live or die, or the individual organism, or a group of organisms? Sociobiology needs to have the site of selection be the genes (because it talks about “units” of selection), whereas Darwin himself, who lived before knowing about genes, thought of it as the physical individual who lived or died. And now Wilson’s third choice is that it is the group which survives or not.

And it is a heated difference. When the other Wilson (E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology) apparently switched sides and recently started doing field research based on group selection, he received an open letter from over 100 experts in evolution telling him how wrong he was. But E.O. kept right on going as before, finding it fruitful to describe his new research in terms of group selection.

Personally, I am no expert, but I haven’t seen any evidence which says that selection cannot act on any site that it happens to be presented with. So I am happy enough with accepting group selection as at least sometimes happening.

But now look at what that further means. (The following is my personal opinion).


What if, instead of talking about self-sacrifice (as in insects), we talk about cooperation (as in what humans do)? Groups that merely cooperate can still end up with a competitive advantage.

Yet cooperative groups can be of any size, and they can be composed of diverse (not uniform) kinds of people, and they can even cooperate on an ad hoc basis.

There is nothing about group selection which requires conformity within the group.

Further, with cooperation, it need not be about literal self-sacrifice except in the limited sense of not being able to do whatever you want while you are cooperating. It seems understandable why some people might sacrifice their short-term interest for a long-term gain.

In other words, it is possible to buy into group selection without also agreeing to the part about people being superorganisms requiring conformity. It is not even necessary to buy into group selection at all to see how being cooperative—working together to accomplish feats that cannot be done by oneself—confers survival value compared to those who do not. (There is your explanation for altruism).

So that would seem to mean that, contrary to Wilson, people do not have to act with conformity in order to survive. They can each pursue their own varied interests while occasionally working together for special projects.

And that is how the breakthrough kinds of ideas can occur—they can come from the jostling of individual minds coming at problems in multiple ways—and then those new ideas do not have to spread by coercion but by methods such as ideas proving fruitful to the individuals who try them, or by people forming consensuses, or by engaging in dialectics between new and old ideas.

And arguably this inventiveness, which comes from a living growing culture, is what contributes to the survival and prospering of our species.

Wilson seems to consider a culture to be basically a set of rules that each person has to follow. But in Part One of this post (about my time with the Navajos), I tried to show how, from just looking at cultures, cultures do not seem to work that way. A living culture can be vibrant and growing rather than uniform.

And now in Part Two, we can see, from a biological standpoint, how that growth can happen. A culture can grow in how people with diverse interests and pursuits can still cooperate together in a way that makes culture “grow as it goes.”


But then lastly, what about epidemiology? Here we are in a pandemic, and it seems fair to ask if coercion is an appropriate response to infectious disease.

As it turns out, there is a maxim in public health which directly addresses this issue.

The maxim is meant for public health and government officials, and it comes from before there existed advanced medical treatments, so it was important to get it right regarding how to prevent the spread of contagion. (I learned it from taking a graduate level course in microbiology all too long ago). And it certainly applies to the Navajos. It states:

“First of all, don’t driver it underground.”

It means that if authorities act in such a draconian manner as to be perceived as “the enemy,” people will avoid seeking help—and even hide—and the contagion will thereby spread. (That is the voice of experience, and it can be thought of as an epidemics version of a more general rule in medicine, “First of all, don’t make it worse”).

In any case, it is a matter of statistical data that draconian actions by officials increase the spread of a contagion.

So limiting my response to Wilson’s contention that culture requires coercion to work, I point out that Wilson’s position is a violation of this basic principle of public health.

What works for conferring survival value is enlightened cooperation, not coercion to conform. We don’t have to be like a superorganism to survive.

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