Humanity as a Superorganism

In the U.S. we are about to celebrate Independence Day. Although it’s intended to commemorate our sovereignty as a nation, independence is also a good description of each one of us Americans, trained as we are to think of ourselves as individuals. To the extent we really think about others, it’s most often our immediate family members. Seldom do we conceive of ourselves as a part of a humanity that exists as a superorganism.

Enlightenment at the LAX

But when I travel, the reality of what I am—of what all of us are, I think—becomes clearer. A few days ago, for example, I flew out of LAX (aka, Los Angeles International Airport), one of the busiest airports in the world. Not only is LAX a virtual beehive of human activity, complete with the constant drone of aircraft coming and going, but there’s an amazing amount construction being done right now. This heightens the aura of hubbub and constant change one experiences there.

Amid this sometimes baffling swath of semi-controlled chaos, it’s impossible to feel like an independent self-contained universe. Rather, it becomes clear that we are, for all our sense of selfhood, individual parts of an immense network, components in a dynamic system.

Our technologies are part of this network, of course. We individual human beings buzz like bees, engaged in our countless versions of waggle dances in order to communicate with one another. Each of us has our special areas of knowledge: not just our work specialties but our unique knowledge of our families, friends, passions, property and community. Whether via our electronic technologies (like the Internet) or just our backyard chats with friends and family (language, after all, is the most important and powerful human technology of them all), we are in a continuous process of information analysis, distribution and reception.

What Is the Human Superorganism?

But what is the superorganism of which we are a part? We can call it the “human race,” of course, but that doesn’t explain much. We could also label it as a technosphere, technium, anthroposphere or infophere, but I’m not sure how helpful that is, either.

The terminology is less important than the nature and purpose of the uber-being. After all, our individual biological cells can’t possibly know what we, as the superorganisms of which they are a part, are truly up to. So, it seems possible that we don’t truly know what our superorganism is doing – what its intentions are, if any.

Of course, maybe the Collective doesn’t think at all, being just a complex network of selfish genes expanding in all directions for the sole purpose of doing what genes do: multiply and vie for continuance. In this scenario, humanity is just a big, dumb giant with no more purpose or agency than a moth drawn to light.

Does the Collective Have a Plan?

So, is there some uber-plan beyond the schemings of ultrawealthy types like Musk or Bezos? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so. I hope that there’s something far larger and more intelligent than our unpleasant packs of plutocrats and politicians.

Because from this one cell’s perspective, those folks too often seem like bearers of uncontrolled and meaningless tumult. Greedy. Vain. Ignorant. More like the god Moloch than anything else I can think of.

But maybe that’s how the superorganism known as humanity actually works. The worshippers of Moloch are a part of the system, but so are the worshippers of Gaia, of Reason, of Buddha, of Jehovah and more. Maybe trusting that we’re part of a plan that’s larger than we can grasp is the very definition of faith. It could be where our spiritual impulses come from. In my case, not from a cathedral but from a gargantuan travel hub made up of concrete and steel, plastic and glass, flesh and fuel, ego and money. And also, of course, bytes and bits flowing like charged particles between nodes and subnetworks that, together, may have purposes of which we are only dimly aware.

Perhaps even forming a more perfect union in the end. Yes, that’d be lovely.

You Are the Edge of Chaos

As a human being, you either ride the edge of chaos or you perish.

Maybe that’s the wrong verb. It’s not so much that you ride it but that you represent it: you are the edge of chaos.

I’m not exaggerating. No matter how sedate or mundane your life may seem, you literally live in a zone between order and chaos, being a complex adaptive system, or CAS.

What Is a Complex Adaptive System?

We may feel singular, but that’s an illusion. You and I are biological collectives within a social collective within a planet-wide ecosystem. The cells that make up your body and mind are individual agents doing a dynamic dance with one another, an ensemble that is self organizing.

Complex adaptive systems, including yourself,  operate in a transitional space that exists between order and complete randomness. This is the conclusion of various scientists studying the workings of CAS across a variety of disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science and biology.

By operating at the edge of chaos, CAS are able to adapt in flexible ways to their changing environments. So, your cells neither fly apart (too much chaos) nor cohere into a changeless whole like a lump of stone or ice (too much order).

For example, when you find yourself in a cold environment, your body reacts in ways that preserve the complex adaptive system that is you. You involuntarily shiver and the blood flow to your extremities may slow to conserve core body heat.

Other Characteristics of CAS

The ability to bestride the edge of chaos is just one of the hallmarks of a CAS. Here’s a list of other characteristics, all of which apply to you:

  • First, you are made of many relatively simple cells, which themselves are made of smaller and simpler elements. In the lingo of CAS, these components are “agents” that are not too complex in themselves but which interact in complex ways.
  • Second, you are nonlinear. That is, the interactions among the multitude of small components of which you are made is nonlinear. This just means that small changes can become big ones and vice versa.  You are a swirl of both positive and negative feedback loops.

In fact, the book Feedback Control in Systems Biology states that “even the briefest consideration of the dynamics which arise from the biological reaction kinetics underpinning almost all cellular processes reveals the ubiquity of non-linear phenomena.”

  • Third, you’re an open system, which means you share information and energy with your environment. You take energy in (for example, you eat an apple) and put energy out (for example, you push a lawnmower).

You also take in and share information. You’re taking in this post, for example, which is information that I’m sending out into the world.

  • Fourth, your behavior is determined by the interactions among your many components. There are, for example, the cells and synapses of the matrix known as your brain as well as the cells in the rest of your body. Although it feels as if you, an individual, are in charge of your behavior, it is really the interactions among your many collective components that determine your thoughts and behaviors.
  • Fifth, you are emergent and, therefore, unpredictable. The interactions among your various components are too complex and nonlinear to be entirely anticipated. What emerges are your behaviors and sense of identity. It’s as if you were your own weather system, and your inner weather person (let’s say your consciousness) can’t always forecast what’s going to happen.
  • Sixth, you have a history. Which just means that one interaction leads to another, and your history largely determines your present state, even if it was unpredictability emergent.

What’s Your Point?

Because you are an open system, you are also part of a larger system, an agent in the global ecosystem.

That whole “I am one with the world” trope? Well, it’s literally true. I guess most of us know that at some level, but the ideas underlying complexity theory make it more explicit.

You and I are CAS but we are also agents in a larger whole. We are parts of the grander reticulum.

Featured Image: "Seeking the edge of chaos is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility" (Joost Pauwelyn); 13 December 2011; WikiImages