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Every once in a while, usually while flying at night over a lit-up city, I get to thinking about superorganisms. And what, exactly, are superorganisms? I always think of them by analogy: cells are to bodies as people are to superorganisms.

If you like, you can stop here, and go off and wonder about superorganisms. That's what I like about the analogy, it is a good starting point for going off and wondering.

Here are some of the things I wonder about. Are there any superorganisms? What, and where, are they? Why aren't we aware of them? Is it possible to communicate with them?

Obviously, I think there are superorganisms, or I wouldn't be writing about them. The most convincing examples, for me, are large companies—a large company can preserve its identity and behavior, even as people come and go. The identity can change gradually over time, just like a person's; or it can change suddenly, in a merger or spin-off … but, hey, superorganisms aren't required to be just like people, maybe they're more like, say, earthworms or slime molds.

That reminds me of a couple of vaguely related ideas. First, memes, too, aren't required to be just like people, they can propagate in all kinds of ways, as I pointed out in Not All Memes Are Viral. Second, the expanded concept of identity you'd get from thinking about mergers and spin-offs is almost exactly the same as the one you'd get from Concepts for Persistent Objects.

Here are a few other good examples of superorganisms. First, there are families, or maybe houses. That's what I was trying to get at in Association, when I was talking about a kind of collective intelligence. Second, there is society as a whole.

Since I'm trying to write an overview, I won't go into any more detail right now. Instead, I'll give my current answers to some of the questions I asked above.

Q: Why aren't we aware of them?

A: I think we are aware of them, we just don't recognize that they're superorganisms. We're aware that large companies exist, for example. Or, we're aware that we can buy a loaf of bread at the grocery, but we don't dwell on what that implies, which is that we're part of a larger system. The cells in the body, too, receive their energy in a convenient preprocessed form.

Q: Is it possible to communicate with them?

A: That's an interesting question, but also a misleading one. Before you can ask about communication, you have to ask whether there is an intelligence to be communicated with, and in all the examples I've thought of, there is no intelligence. You might be able to communicate with a superorganism in the sense that you can communicate with an anthill by squashing all the ants that come into your pantry, but that's about it.

Finally, I'd like to point out one big difference between the two sides of the analogy. A single cell pretty well belongs to only one person, but a single person, I think, can participate in more than one superorganism.

If you like thinking along these lines, you'd probably like the story in Theodore Sturgeon's book More Than Human.


  See Also

  Age of Transportation, The
  Blood Music
  Day in the Life, A
  On Walking

@ October (2001)