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File:Termite Cathedral DSC03570.jpg

A termite mound made by the cathedral termite


A coral colony

A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are the best-known example of such a superorganism, while the naked mole rat is a famous example of the eusocial mammal. The technical definition of a superorganism is "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective,"[1] phenomena being any activity "the hive wants" such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.

Superorganisms are important in cybernetics, particularly biocybernetics. They exhibit a form of "distributed intelligence," a system in which many individual agents with limited intelligence and information are able to pool resources to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the individuals. Existence of such behavior in organisms has many implications for military and management applications, and is being actively researched.[2]

Superorganic in social theory

Nineteenth century thinker Herbert Spencer coined the term super-organic to focus on social organization (the first chapter of his Principles of Sociology is entitled "Super-organic Evolution"[3]), though this was apparently a distinction between the organic and the social, not an identity: Spencer explored the holistic nature of society as a social organism while distinguishing the ways in which society did not behave like an organism.[4] For Spencer, the super-organic was an emergent property of interacting organisms, that is, human beings. And, as has been argued by D. C. Phillips, there is a "difference between emergence and reductionism."[5]

Similarly, economist Carl Menger expanded upon the evolutionary nature of much social growth, but without ever abandoning methodological individualism. Many social institutions arose, Menger argued, not as "the result of socially teleological causes, but the unintended result of innumerable efforts of economic subjects pursuing 'individual' interests."[6]

Spencer and Menger both argued that because it is individuals who choose and act, any social whole should be considered less than an organism, though Menger emphasized this more emphatically. Spencer used the organistic idea to engage in extended analysis of social structure, conceding that it was primarily an analogy. So, for Spencer, the idea of the super-organic best designated a distinct level of social reality above that of biology and psychology, and not a one-to-one identity with an organism.

Nevertheless, Spencer also argued that "every organism of appreciable size is a society," which has suggested to some that the issue may be terminological.[7]

The term superorganic was adopted by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1917.[8] Social aspects of the superorganism concept are analysed in Marshall (2002).[9]

Problems and criticisms

The question remains "What is to be considered the individual?" Some biologists such as Richard Dawkins suggest that the individual selected is the selfish gene,[10] while computer simulations like Daisyworld suggest that biological selection occurs at multiple levels simultaneously.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Some scientists have suggested that individual human beings can be thought of as "superorganisms"; as a typical human digestive system contains 1013 to 1014 microorganisms whose collective genome ("microbiome") contains at least 100 times as many genes as our own [11] (see also Human microbiome project).

See also


  1. Kelly, Kevin (1994). Out of control: the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world, 98, Boston: Addison-Wesley.
  2. Kelly, Kevin (1994). Out of control: the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world, 251, Boston: Addison-Wesley.

    If Col. Thorpe [of the US DARPA] has his way, the four divisions of the US military and hundreds of industrial subcontractors will become a single interconnected superorganism. The immediate step to this world of distributed intelligence is an engineering protocol developed by a consortium of defense simulation centers in Orlando Florida ...

  3. The Principles of Sociology, Vol. 1, Part 1. "The Data of Sociology", Herbert Spencer, 1876
  4. The Principles of Sociology, Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter II, "A Society Is an Organism" (sections 222 and 223), Herbert Spencer, 1876
  5. Holistic Thought in Social Science, D. C. Phillips, Stanford University Press, 1976, p. 123
  6. Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics, Carl Menger, Louis Schneider (translator), New York University Press, 1985
  7. The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Tim S. Gray, 1996, p. 211
  8. Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict, Houghton Mifflin, 1934, p. 231
  9. Marshall, A. (2002). The Unity of Nature, Imperial College Press, London.
  10. The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976
  11. (2 June 2006) Metagenomic Analysis of the Human Distal Gut Microbiome. Science 312 (5778): 1355–1359.

External links


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