I was tempted to title this article “Superorganisms, Slime Moulds and Beehives” because recent theoretical developments in evolutionary sciences hold some interesting lessons for humanity. Simply put, looked at through a very long evolutionary lens we see that the evolution of life forms isn’t a smooth linear process but rather a series of steps which have been called Major Evolutionary Transitions (or METS).

Such organismal transitions are characterised by an increase in size and complexity,  internal coordination, hierarchy and a loss of individuality at the lower levels. The process involves simpler forms combining together in symbiotic relationships to create more complex wholes which prove to be more adaptive and competitive on the evolutionary treadmill. Some examples of increased complexity include eukaryotic cells (with nuclei and mitochondria), multicellular organisms, the eusocial species (mostly insects like bees and ants)* and organisms with natural language (humans).

METS occurred over large periods of time and included intermediate forms such as the slime moulds which can assume multicellular forms with coordinated actions under conditions of scarcity or, when food is abundant, fragment into independent single cells. Eusocial insects consist of multicellular individuals who coordinate their actions to form superorganisms (colonies, hives and so forth) in which the individual insects assume specific roles (eg, workers, warriors and queens).

Thus the natural world supplies us with abundant examples of the emergence of organismal complexity which confers evolutionary advantages but comes with costs to the component parts in the form of loss of individual agency. Furthermore, such increased complexity also comes with a finite risk of breakdown as can be seen in various ant colonies, for instance, and autoimmune disease in humans.

Such natural phenomena have not escaped the attention of philosophers as far back as Plato (interpreted by Socrates) who conceived of the ideal human society as resembling a human individual in which the different organs are subordinated to the whole. We see societies, Hamas for instance, in which members are willing and indeed eager to lay down their lives in the interests of the collective. Even in democratic societies like Israel, young people are willing (though certainly not eager) to die in the service of their country.

More to the point of everyday politics is the question: can free humans  create collectives capable of sustaining harmonious and cooperative behaviours over the long-term? And, to drill down further: what are the conditions required for such polities to arise and to prosper? 

These questions, of course, have been widely addressed by political scientists and others in related disciplines within the humanities. Most such studies assume that humans are a special case and it’s uncommon for scholars or commentators to seek inspiration from the study of other living forms. Since my background was in the biological sciences, I see potential in using a wider (and deeper) biological lens in trying to understand and regulate human political behaviour.

I’m going to use as a springboard a paper published a decade ago entitled, ‘ The Superorganism Account of Human Sociality: How and When Human Groups are Like Beehives‘. Written by a social psychologist using a broad evolutionary frame of reference, the paper provides a useful map into the pre-conditions required for humans to achieve functional and sustainable societies. 

 The author starts by laying down five conditions to be fully or sufficiently met for a stable superorganism to emerge and persist:  

(1) mechanisms to integrate the individual units, (2) mechanisms to achieve unity of action, (3) low levels of heritable within-group variation, (4) a common fate, and (5) mechanisms to resolve conflicts of interest in the collective’s favor.

Mechanisms to integrate individual units: communication and coordination

In cells and multicellular organisms , communication and coordinationbetween individual components occur through bioelectric flows and chemical signals in various ways. Going up the chain, communication between humans is achieved by bodily gestures, movement and sounds, but mainly through symbolic communication in the form of language and other symbols such as flags, icons, memorials and buildings. Uniforms and displays of group power and unity are common means of enhancing collective identity and purpose.  Other coordination mechanisms include synchronous movements like dancing (think the haka), chanting, singing and marching. All this is amplified by digital technology through both private and mass communication channels. Data processing and algorithms can guide humans to preferred messages.

Shared intentionality and unity of action

Shared intentionality and unity of action are enabled both by the capacities and technologies of the preceding paragraph and by features of human psychology and cognition. These may be via bottom-up mechanisms (spontaneous emergence of self-organisation) or top-down mechanisms involving social identity and authority, or more commonly, both in different proportions. 

In order for shared intentionality to emerge, humans have a heightened capacity (compared to other primates) for shared attention and the ability to infer purpose from context and minimal signals. Such characteristics are already manifested in infants of a few months and more explicitly in children’s play and enjoyment of games. Isolated groups of strangers have the capacity to form functional groups so as to survive hostile and unfamiliar conditions for variable lengths of time (The book, ‘Blueprint:  the evolutionary origins of a good society‘ by Nicholas A Christakis, provides fascinating examples in the early chapters).

Under more complex and prolonged challenges, leaders may be necessary to coordinate group purpose and to prevent self-serving behaviours. Humans come equipped with respect for authority but are not as intensely hierarchical as adjacent primate species. Group cohesion is vastly enhanced by a sense of collective identity which co-exists (and competes) with individual identity, both at the neurological and psychological levels. One of the tasks of leadership is to strengthen collective social identity sufficiently to inhibit excessive self-interest or fragmentation of the larger group into competing factions.

Leadership implies deference towards authority and the existence of status hierarchies. These differ from dominance hierarchies insofar as status is achieved through reputation and achievement, while dominance works through coercion. Studies suggest that status hierarchies in society can promote group coordination so long as high status (elite) individuals are seen to represent the welfare of the group rather than their own self-interest. Presumably institutions, which generally are the formal expressions of high-status individuals, need to do the same in order to garner group respect.

Low level of heritable variation among the superorganism’s component units

Functional superorganisms in biology are associated with low levels of heritable variation among the superorganism’s units. In other words, the cells of multicellular organisms and the individual insects of eusocial colonies are genetically identical or close. This is clearly less so in human collectives generally, though in relatively isolated groups such as castes genetic variability is reduced. There’s evidence that genetic variation amongst members of some Asian societies, eg. Chinese, may be less than amongst Westerners. So far as I’m aware there are no direct studies on the influence of genetic variability on human groups or on group cohesiveness and coordination.

But in humans, cultures rather than genes are generally claimed to be the chief sources of relevant phenotypic variation. Although largely unstated this is a highly contentious field as reflected in the intensity of the identity wars. It seems for critical justice theory to be considered a valid expression of reality, that intergroup genetic differences must cease to be meaningful and that even within groups, heritable differences must be minimized. 

Thus serious research along these lines stagnates. Nevertheless, it’s true that cultures play a larger role in human societies than in other animals. Culturally diverse societies thus find significantly greater difficulty in achieving group coordination and cohesion than more homogeneous collectives. 

Of course, there may be other advantages to both genetic and cultural heterogeneity which outweigh the disadvantages. That is another contentious but key issue and various devices such federalism or balkanisation may be the only way to successfully eliminate intra-group factionalism while retaining a measure of coordination in the pursuit of prosperity and peace. In the absence of controlled dispersion of power, the gates may be opened to civil war or disintegration into warlordism.

Common fate

The component units of superorganisms by definition must share a common fate. If some individuals or groups of individuals can prosper while the rest suffer we have a parasite-host combination. Unless this evolves into a stable symbiotic system, such arrangements can only be temporary. 

In small-scale societies a common fate can be achieved by enforced equality (egalitarianism) through gossip and policing coupled with punishments ranging from shaming to exclusion or even death. Incentives such as enhanced status and access to resources also contribute to elite domestication in a common cause. As societies increase in scale such functions devolve to various institutions, buttressed by moral emotions of fairness and punitive aggression and social norms and values. Undoubtedly scale is an important determinant of cohesive social coordination, which may be one reason why smaller states dominate global indices of social well-being and happiness.

Thus, serious inequalities, unless perceived to be earned and used for the common good, are a source of instability. These arouse resentment and envy which find expression in rebellion. Such responses are facilitated by pre-existing ethnic or religious differences and by historical grievances whether grounded in reality or not. 

On the other hand, war or the threat of war may enhance cohesion amongst contending subgroups. A common enemy is a convenient device for rulers to obtain at least temporary support amongst the members of a collective threatening to rebel. Sport can serve as a more benign and longer-term social glue as can tradition and ritual. 

Mechanisms to Resolve Conflicts of Interest in Favour of the Collective: Prosocial Emotions, Norms, and Institutions

At the simplest level humans come equipped with a set of moral emotions tuned by prolonged evolutionary selective pressures in small band, social existence. These are particularly pronounced in the human lineage reflecting our dependence on mutual cooperation for survival across vastly varying terrains. Moral (pro-social) emotions promoted cooperation in complex social environments created by a large-brained, highly communicative species, namely ourselves.

Such pro-social emotions include empathy and fairness impulses plus strongly negative feelings towards defectors and free-riders. Also, the capacity for guilt and shame and the need for reputation management within the group encourages pro-social behaviour. Thus individual virtues of honesty, generosity, kindness and courage emerged and were respected. Groups also developed procedures for meting out justice to malingerers and for repairing and preventing within group conflicts. These evolved into informal norms and formal institutions of complex human societies.

Back to human political systems

To sum up, we have seen that humans have the basic psychological, cognitive and communicative capacities to create complex societies which rival and even surpass the superorganisms (colonies, hives etc) in the eusocial species. This represents a form of convergent evolution in which two different pathways converge on similar (but not identical) outcomes. 

The similarities and differences are important in understanding the future potentialities of each species, so it necessary to take a brief dive into this issue. The first obvious difference lies in the fundamental units of the colonies created by eusocial insects and humans. 

In the former, the insects involved are relatively simple organisms highly specialised for the ecological niche they inhabit, stereotyped in their behaviour and responses to specific stimuli and with no evidence of an advanced consciousness capable of creating preferences, motivation and values. They respond to chemical and other stimuli in a predictable manner based upon reliable genetic pathways. What stuns observers is the degree of sophistication and adaptability that can be achieved by simple agents in complex systems. Such unexpected properties of the colonies are called ’emergent’ since they cannot be modeled from the properties of the component agents.

This efficiency comes at a price. Insects are incapable of playing any causal role in adjusting their own behaviour or the behaviour of the system. Any serious adaptive change depends upon chance genetic variation and the ruthless filtering power of natural selection. Even so, such complex colonies can be remarkably adaptive, within limits, to environmental and other challenges.

In stark contrast, humans are conscious beings capable of preferences and foresight (within limits), and thus motivation and planning. Human behaviour is driven by a combination of emotions, internalised narratives and norms and rational evaluation of self-interest. All of these features differ widely between individuals and groups created by the interaction of genetic and post-genetic factors. The combination of sophisticated,  symbolic communication, further enhanced by technology, simultaneously accentuates these differences while also allowing for resolution of conflicts. 

Thus, unlike insects, humans possess the feeling of agency and are more than capable of evaluating their level of satisfaction with their lot in life. It’s no wonder that Walt Whitman wrote: 

I think I could turn and live with animals,…They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,…Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

This profound chasm between the eusocial species and the apex mammalian social species lies at the root of our remarkable but precarious success. One way of mitigating the disruptive pressures in human societies is by enforcing uniformity and coordination through force and fear. 

Initially, this was achieved in small-scale hunter-gatherer societies by pervasive surveillance and gossip, plus social pressures. If unsuccessful, coercion could escalate to expulsion or murder. The threat of constant lethal conflict with neighbouring bands and other external threats also contributed to group cohesion.

But increased group size following on plant and animal domestication about 11 000 years ago required more extreme, coercive measures. For most of human history, following the so-called agricultural revolution, authoritarian societies were the order of the day. Constant large-scale war helped drive the emergence of empires. Symbolic and ideological means, especially religion, contributed to the authoritarian uniformity of despotic states with their social strata and castes. The moral authority conferred by religion on the ruling dynasties and supported by priesthoods, buttressed their legitimacy against popular rebellion.

But the restless democratic instinct was not easily suppressed, despite the sophisticated  Machiavellianism of ruling elites. Formal democracy, along with the Enlightenment and the rise of organised Science, arose in the West and signaled a profound change in the global political, moral and power relationships of the modern era. 

The advent of democracy in the West liberated enormous energies expressed in scientific, cultural and technological innovation, military power, increased productivity and colonial expansionism. 

The ripples of these events rattled the societies of the time and have been further amplified and prolonged by the on-going digital and energy revolutions. These intertwined developments have brought unparalleled improvements to human life while at the same time threatening to jump the tracks of global stability.  The environment is not only fertile soil for unremitting technological change but for radical ideologies which strain the capacities of human adaptability.

Being human, we see such developments in tribal and moral terms which further polarise societies from within and without. The central problem of our age is how to mobilise the pro-social elements of human society which allowed us to become the global apex species in the first place, while at the same time retaining democratic norms and warding off predatory and destabilising forces in the global human collective.

This is a problem which does not yield to solution-orientated thinking but to on-going mitigation and managements strategies. The study of other complex and superorganismal biological systems can yield insights as to what works and what doesn’t. We can use these to understand and manage ourselves better.  But humanity is a special case, and must be treated as such. The same technologies which destabilise human society can also be the means of our salvation. 

Large scale maps, like his article, may be extremely useful for orientation, but successful management also requires short-term strategies and skills. In future columns I want to explore these further. This essay was written to set the stage and the intellectual framework for more focused attention on specifics. 

Endnotes: Ant Geopolitics by John Witfield is enjoyable and informative. For a much deeper dive into the topic of METs as related to humans see Phil Trans Roy Soc B, vol. 378, issue 1872.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Dr Mike Berger has a BSc and MBBCh from the University of the Witwatersrand, and a PhD in Biochemistry from Mayo Clinic/University of Minnesota in the United States. He was a Senior Lecturer-Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, and latterly Professor and Head of Chemical Pathology at the University of Natal Medical School. He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. In retirement, he has pursued Interests in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and aligned disciplines in relation to politics and human collective behaviour. He has published extensively in South African popular media. Other interests and hobbies include writing, photography, cycling, history and literature.