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.

Human Beings Don’t Live Without Technology

Human beings don’t live without technology, and it’s not clear that they can. Even the people who live “off the grid” without what we call “high technology” don’t live with no technology at all. Far from it. They wear clothes, live in human-made shelters and use basic tools. Perhaps there are naked people somewhere surviving with no tools at all, including handmade ones, but I’ve never heard of any.

No-Tech Is Not Natural for People

The vast majority of other animals can and do live without any technologies at all. Yes, there are a fair number of other tools users in the world, including all the hominids (we are part of this group, of course), various types of birds, elephants, dolphins, sea otters, octopus and more. But, for most of them, tools are a sideline without which they could and would survive (certain nesting birds might be the exception, depending on how we define tools).

But people? Not really. Because our tools have shaped our evolution just as we have shaped theirs. A relatively weak and hairless ape without clothes and built shelters is unlikely to survive. If we deprive that hairless ape of fire and cooking, for example, it is unlikely to be able to derive enough nutrition because its body (teeth, jaw, stomach, colon, etc.) has literally evolved to process cooked foods. It’s very difficult to rely solely and completely on unprocessed raw foods: try sticking to a raw food diet in which somebody somewhere along the way doesn’t use some form of tool.

So, yes, hypothetically a genetically and geographically (they’d better be a relatively warm place!) lucky human being could survive into adulthood without ever using any type of tool, but it would be an uphill, unpleasant and unnatural lifestyle.

Our Tools Are Essential Extensions of Our Selves

In other words, our tools are essential parts of our lives. We are interconnected with them. They are part of the reticulum in which we abide.

Image by Sheila1988; Agricultural tools at show

Over time, our network of tools has grown, of course. We almost certainly started with simple wooden tools and rocks, the same as our hominid cousins often use today. But over time, this assortment of technologies has grown ever more diverse and complex. We extend ourselves through our tools, and then the tools themselves become networks into which we embed ourselves. Consider, for example, our networks of roads, wires, pipes, machines, language and more.

At some point, it becomes hard to tell where we homo sapiens stop and our technologies begin. Our technology network has become so large and complex that we’ve invented new words (and, yes, words are also tools) to describe them: “technologies,” “technosphere,” “technium,” “information networks,” etc. (Note that the word networks wasn’t even invented until the 1550s, making it a relatively modern human piece of human technology).

But the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, all I’m really doing is setting the stage for my next post on the topic of technological advances, including the latest ones that extend the deepest of all our networks: the ones that make up our minds.