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Bees and beyond: Superorganism

While the bees have done the smart thing and huddled up for winter, we are wide awake and using the snowy days for catching up on reading and working on the “wider picture”.

There is a lot about bees that is interesting, and the more we study them, the more we keep encountering new and strange and unexpected connections that reach way beyond bees and biology.

Take the superorganism.

Now I know what you are thinking (or what you would be thinking if you were anything like me):

The Borg-Cube

The superorganism – together with its close relative, the hive mind – have inspired generations of science-fiction writers and for good reasons. The idea of giving up individuality and merging into a powerful collective with enormous additional capacities is both, deeply fascinating and creepily alien.

The Alien Queen from “Alien” (1986)

And it may not even be fiction anymore. Kevin Kelly, for example, of Wired, among others, sees the global superorganism of  the “One Machine“ emerging right in front of our eyes.

„My hypothesis is this: The rapidly increasing sum of all computational devices in the world connected online, including wirelessly, forms a superorganism of computation  with its own emergent behaviors. (…)
I define the One Machine as the emerging superorganism of computers. It is a megasupercomputer composed of billions of sub computers. The sub computers can compute individually on their own, and from most perspectives these units are distinct complete pieces of gear. But there is an emerging smartness in their collective that is smarter than any individual computer.“


For biologists, the superorganism goes beyond collective intelligence to incorporate all physical properties of a collective, and it actually is a pretty old idea.

In 1869, German carpenter and beekeeper Johannes Mehring published his book “Das neue Einwesensystem als Grundlage zur Bienenzucht oder Wie der rationelle Imker den höchsten Ertrag von seinen Bienen erzielt. Auf Selbsterfahrungen gegründet.” (roughly: “The new system of the „one-being“ as basis for beekeeping. How the rational beekeeper can receive the best yields from his bees. Based on own experience.” [my translation])

Mehring compared the entire bee-colony to the body of a mammal, with the queen and the drones as the sexual organs and the worker bees as sustentative and alimentary organ(s). He observed that neither of the „organs“ is viable on its own, and that the „one-being“ („Einwesen“) is able to develop capacities that a single bee could never achieve. This idea, to look at an entire bee-colony as if it were one single animal, led to the German notion of „der Bien“ (the being incidentally becoming a male now in the German language, despite unchanged sex-ratio in the colony…).

W.M. Wheeler, myrmecologist

The term superorganism was first used by William Morton Wheeler in his essay „The Ant-Colony is an Organism“ in 1911.

„We have seen that the insect colony or society may be regarded as a super-organism and hence as a living whole bent on preserving its moving equilibrium and integrity.“

(This quote, to me, is not only remarkable for the use of the word super-organism, but also for a very early mention of the concept of „moving equilibrium“, an idea that later got a lot of attention in cybernetics and systems theory, but somehow hasn’t made it into the collective consciousness yet, where “equilibrium” is still widely considered as something static.)

Although the term superorganism is intuitively appealing when we think about social insects, there are a number of problems attached to it. Most importantly: How could this have happened?

Biological superorganism are, among other things, characterized by a clear division of labor among their members, with sterile workers raising sisters instead of daughters; or, in other words, with workers acting altruistically. The question is: in the course of evolution, how would the sterile workers pass their (altruistic) genes on to the next generation? How does natural selection act on an organism (the worker) that „gave up“ reproduction? How did altruism evolve?

Darwin himself identified the presence of „neuter insects“ as one of the biggest problems facing his theory on the origin of species, and to this day, the issue is under heated debate among biologists. I will write more about this, probably, but for the moment I leave you with Alex Wild’s very helpful summary of the latest installment of the debate over at Myrmecos.

„Biologists who study the evolution of cooperation fall into two tribes. Those who think cooperation arises primarily because it facilitates the reproduction of kin (the kin selectionists), and those who think cooperation arises because groups that cooperate do better than groups that don’t (the group selectionists). Not what you’d consider the stuff of lurid vendettas…“

More soon.

Update Dec 11, 2010: More here.