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Reading about the Superorganism

As I wrote before, we are trying to get our heads around a few things related to bees and social insects in general. One of them is the concept of the Superorganism (which somehow seems to be much more readily embraced in popular culture than among biologists).

Two prominent proponents of the superorganism-concept are Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson and their book “The Superorganism” is a phantastic source of examples from the natural history of social insects. Although “ant-people” by profession and inclination, they have plenty of stories to tell for “bee-pople” as well.

„[O]ur intention here is to present the rich and diverse natural history facts that illustrate superorganismic traits in insect societies and to trace the evolutionary pathways to the most advanced stages of eusociality.

Our intent in doing so is to revive the superorganism concept, with emphasis on colony-level adaptive traits, such as division of labor and communication. Finally, in presenting the subject this way, we visualize the colony as a self-organized entity and a target of natural selection.

In this book, we view the insect colony as the equivalent of an organism, the unit that must be examined in order to understand the biology of colonial species.“

Hölldobler and Wilson strongly argue that natural selection works on several levels, not just on individuals and their genes, but on groups as well.

„Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels. Biology is the study of the levels that compose the hierarchy. No phenomenom at any level can be wholly characterized without incorporating other phenomena that arise at all levels. (…) Natural selection that targets a trait at any of these levels ripples in effect across all the others.“ (pp 7f)

So, while the “selfish gene” does play an important role, they see other mechanims at work as well.
More on the history of the different evolutionary concepts you can find in this interview with Bert Hölldobler on Wired.

Aside from the debate about underlying evolutionary principles, I do like the focus of the superorganism concept on self-organization and decentralized, bottom-up processes. There is no “brain-caste” in insect societies. “Order” and “intelligence” are achieved by cooperation alone. Cooperation according to some very strict and unrelenting rules, though (or behavioral patterns, if that’s a better term).

Also, by the way, Ed Yong reports some compelling Mathematical Support for Insect Colonies as Superorganisms.

Und: “Der Superorganismus” ist inzwischen auch in deutscher Ãœbersetzung verfügbar.