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A Cell in the Superorganism

May 19, 2010

Brit Trogen

science in seconds blog brit trogen

The concept of the superorganism is a fascinating one. Individuals acting in close-knit societies form a “body” that acts like a single unit—taking in food, expelling waste, reproducing and eventually dying, with a single physiology and life cycle. We’ve recognized this in ant colonies and beehives for decades. It’s kind of like a scaled up version of cell biology: bee is to hive as cell is to body.

But when it comes to humanity, the debate isn’t entirely settled. Are we just conscious cells in a larger body? I mean, you’d think we’d have noticed something like that by now…

In fact, many scientists have argued that we’re no different than bees. To form a superorganism you need a highly specialized division of labor and cooperation between the different parts. You need selection that acts on the group, rather than just the individual. So does humanity fit the bill?

A recent TED talk by Nicholas Christakis suggests that we do, and that our superorganism traits may have evolved for purposes of social connectivity. According to Christakis, humans pass emotional and physiological memes (like happiness, obesity, retirement or anger) freely across social networks. Having a friend who is depressed, for example, or even a friend of a friend of a friend who is depressed statistically increases your own risk of depression. But the benefits of a “connected life” across evolutionary history, according to Christakis, must have outweighed the costs. And the human superorganism is the result.

So what difference does it make? Well, by studying things like mass behavior and group selection, it’s possible that we can gain a better understanding of the driving forces behind our actions. Science writer Howard Bloom even suggests that being cut off from the superorganism through unemployment or social isolation can result in humanity’s version of apoptosis: depression, sometimes resulting in suicide. And applying these theories to warfare, economics and politics have yielded equally fascinating analogies.

So when John Donne said “no man is an island,” he may have been more right than he knew. Maybe we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. So, as Donne would say, welcome to the continent.

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