Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I.T. - 2-04 - The "SUPERorganism"

In his box of books in the jeep were another two, titled [SOCIOBIOLOGY] and [INSECT SOCIETIES], both heavy-duty hard-covers by the great scientist Edward O. Wilson. Today, he brought them out to read about termite mounds.

On p. 317 of [INSECT SOCIETIES], titled [The Superorganism Concept and Beyond], he read:

[The idea of homeostasis leads easily to the visualization of the entire insect colony as a kind of superorganism. In fact, the story of the superorganism concept, from its origin as a philosophical idea sixty years ago to its present sharp decline in contemporary thinking, should prove instructive to historians of science as well as to biologists with a more immediate interest in the subject. During some forty years, from 1911 to about 1950, this concept was a dominant theme in the literature on social insects. Then, at the seeming peak of its maturity it faded, and today it is seldom explicitly discussed...

[... the current generation of students of social insects... saw its future in stepwise experimental work in narrowly conceived problems, and it has chosen to ignore the superorganism concept... Seldom has so ambitious a scientific concept been so quickly and almost totally discarded.

[The superorganism concept faded not because it was wrong but because it no longer seemed relevant. It is not necessary to invoke the concept in order to commence work on animal societies. The concept offers no techniques, measurements, or even definitions by which the intricate phenomena in genetics, behaviour, and physiology can be unraveled. It is even difficult to cite examples where the conscious use of the idea led to a new discovery in animal sociology...

[... But it would be wrong to overlook the significant, albeit semiconscious, role this idea had played in the history of the subject...

[Finally, it might be asked what vision, if any, has replaced the superorganism concept… there is no new holistic conception...]

“So, what does this leave us?” I asked Raminothna. “It seems that the door has been slammed shut on the concept decades ago.”

“It is about to open again.”

“It slammed shut for a reason. Is the reason gone?”

“Yes it is.”

“And what is this reason?”

“There are several reasons.”

"Such as?"

"Tell me. Have they ever considered a human-based society as a superorganism?"

"Not in these books."

"And have they considered if the insect societies have the ability to form higher societies of their own?"

"No, and I've never thought of it myself either."

"Did the Superorganism concept considered the sociality of the superorganisms at all?"

"Not at all."

"Finally, a big problem resides right there in its very name."

“What? 'Superorganism'? Why? I thought it sounded fascinating, and should have raised widespread interest."

"It did, but only for 4 decades, then lost it. To raise interest is one thing, to keep it raised is another."

"So, what's wrong with its name?"

"Tell me. If you call a society of organisms a superorganism, what would you call a society of superorganisms?"

"Assuming that superorganisms can form societies of their own, of course?"

"Of course."

"If a society of organisms is a superorganism, then a society of superorganisms can only be called a 'Supersuperorganism'."

"And what do you call a society of supersuperorganism?"

"A supersupersuperorganism. Um, I think I'm beginning to see what you mean. It is cumbersome, to say the least."

"'To say the least' is right. More so, it is unsystematic."

"So what’s your solution?”

“What’s yours?”

“Well, first, we have established that the termite cell, termite and the termite mound are all organisms.”

“Yes, we have.”

“Wait. No, we haven’t. The termite cell is not an organism, is it? It is only a body cell of a termite which is an organism.”


“Because… it has lost its independence, for one thing.”

“Is this the only reason?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“You did say that a termite an organism, didn’t you?”

“Yes I did.”

“Just like a grasshopper or a dragonfly is an organism?”


“Can a grasshopper. Live on its own?”

“Yes, it can.”

“Can a dragonfly live on its own?”

“Yes, it can.”

“Can a termite or a bee live on its own?”


“Has it lost its independence?”

“Yes it has."

"But your still consider the termite an organism."

"Yes, I do. I see what you mean. A body-cell of a termite, or dragonfly, in spite of its sociality, is nonetheless a bona fide organism, albeit a social one."

“So how do you solve the problem of the superorganism now?” I asked him what he asked me.

"It is very clear to me now," he said with light in his eyes. "Get rid of the prefix 'Super'. All are organisms, but on 3 different levels of organization - at least three: the Cellular, the Metazoan, and the Tribal. No more 'super super'!"


“And on each level of organization, there are nonsocial and social organisms.”

“Very good.”

“I can even write a simple equation to describe these levels: Society (X) = Organism (X+1), or Organism (X) = Society (X-1).”


“This is so obvious, why didn’t they think of it?”

“What did Thomas Huxley say after reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species?”

“I believe he said these very same words: 'This is so obvious why didn’t I think of it?'”

“A common question for the cerebral silver medalists.”

I am Raminothna,
the Fortunate and Called Upon,
at your service.

Anthony Marr, Founder and President
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)
Global Anti-Hunting Coalition (GAHC)

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