Superorganisms – Nature’s Connectivity In Action

We’re beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood. The first brood then goes through a series of operations to breed more workers, and before long you’ve got soldier ants, worker ants, and foragers, and you’ve got a teeming colony. That’s because they follow a series of genetically prescribed rules of interaction, behavior, and physical development. If we can fully understand how a superorganism is put together, we’ll come much closer to general principles of how an organism is put together. There are two different levels—the cells put together to make an organism, organisms put together to make a superorganism.”  

                   — From “A United Biology” by E.O.Wilson

It is a fact that your life force and the life force of everything in Nature can be physically encountered through many manifestations of Nature’s interconnectedness. Connectivity is real !!! It is the attribute that facilitates the flow of energy — the lifeblood of all Nature. The web of life is connectivity.

Consider your own body, a flock of birds, a fish school, a herd of elk, and the human population. All of these are called superorganisms. They are interconnected and leaderless groups that are capable of interrelating with other groups. The bundles of relationships in superorganisms facilitate the vital flow of energy that Nature needs to operate. Within practical limits, you can touch, taste, smell, and feel these groups.

The fascinating study of superorganisms gives us some clues about connectivity in Nature. Superorganisms are systems of living creatures that behave and adapt in interesting and unpredictable ways. Lack of predictability is why the practice of conservation in Nature is so difficult.  To understand these self-organizing systems, we must first understand how the creatures in a superorganism operate.

  • Each creature behaves according to a fixed set of behavior rules that define how it connects and interacts with its neighboring creatures. These rules are typically stored in a creature’s genetic makeup.
  • The system operates without a leader.

The process is called “self-organization”. I’ve explained self-organization in a previous post

 Self-organizing systems exist on many levels, from self-organized atoms to gigantic galactic systems to the universe itself. They can be divided into groups according to their energy use. Some, like atoms, crystals and the planetary system, require no input of energy from the outside to maintain themselves. These systems are close to equilibrium.

Other self-organizing systems maintain themselves only through a continuous exchange of energy and matter with their environment. Because they are not only absorbing matter and energy but are also shedding them, these systems have been called dissipative systems. Living organisms are a prime example of such systems.

Here is a summary of the characteristics of self-organizing systems:

1. Multiple components – Self-organizing systems are networks of many parts acting coherently. Each part operates according to its own nature but within an environment that is produced by its interactions with other parts in the system.

2. Self-initiated interaction — It is important to emphasize that self-organizing systems have no leader inside the system forming it. Bird flocks, fish schools, and animal herds, for example, are all leaderless.

3. Self-configuration — As a self-organizing system constructs itself, the arrangement of its constituent parts is determined by the internal relationships between these  parts.

4. Interdependence. Just as system behavior is produced through the synergistic action of the constituent parts, the behaviors of the parts are influenced by their association within the system. The spacing and speed of movement of each fish in a fish school produces the group behavior. However, the behavior of the group, speeding up or turning to avoid predation, will change the individual’s behavior. Everything is in flux. The system is influenced by the parts and the parts are influenced by the interactions within the system. There are many feedback arrangements.

5. Communication (information exchange)

Since the action of a self-organizing system is a product of the internal interactions of the parts, there must be some way for the parts to influence each other for the system to function. Should this information-exchange fail, the system would cease to operate. How could blind birds form a flock?

6. Self-maintenance – Adaptation to change

Within limits, a self-organizing system has the ability to preserve its form and to reorganize itself in the face of disruption. Consider the sweeping turns of a flock of birds. The system is constantly reforming itself as it responds to changes in its environment.

7. Collective new properties are produced

Creatures that form a self-organizing system become something more than a collection. As the creatures establish mutual relationships, the system acquires new properties. The superorganism is more than the sum of its parts.

8. Superorganisms are dissipative systems

The concept of dissipative systems originated in the work of llya Prigogine for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1977. Dissipative systems operate far from equilibrium. They take in and disperse considerable quantities of matter and energy and exhibit instabilities that make their courses impossible to predict. Although the actions of such systems are bounded by the limits of physical laws they have many ways of proceeding within those limits. Examples are the touch down points and paths of tornados and the branching points of plants.

From the same starting point, the second path of a subject animal is never the same as the first path it traveled. For dissipative systems there are divergent pathways. Many directions, all equally possible, are open to them. They create new possibilities that might not be available had they moved differently. These new possibilities can never be predicted or predetermined. Biological evolution is one result of this divergent property. The path of species development must obey physical laws and environmental constraints. Also, as species interact with the environment, they can also change the environment that helped to determine their development.

Superorganisms are physical  manifestations of interconnectedness and energy flow in Nature. The ability of systems to self-organize and spontaneously develop new unpredictable behaviors or structures brings novelty into the universe. Within the laws of physics, self-organizing systems bring the unexpected, making the future unknown and unknowable. Through these systems, nature is creative.  They are living proof that mankind cannot predict or control Nature.

Here are a few references about superorganisms to consider if you care to investigate deeper:

A United Biology – A talk with  E. O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson on ‘Superorganism’

The Secret Society Of Superorganisms

Swarms, Colonies, Flocks, and Schools: Exploring the Ontology of Collective Individuals

Superorganisms – An Internet guide to the social system of superorganisms

E Pluribus Unim

Humanity: The new superorganism taking over the earth

What Is Emergence?

Emergence – A Nova Video

Worth Your Extra Attention :

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

3 Responses to “Superorganisms – Nature’s Connectivity In Action”

  1. Kevin Franck says:

    I’m going out on a limb here, but it would seem that humans have becoming a self-disorganizing system. Leadership on ALL sides is inept and even the Lemmings who voted them into power are incapable of seeing the problem. This is irrespective of the ideological background of that leadership. In the end, the rest of the natural with it’s organization also breaking down because it “IS” dependent on organization and cooperation. Destroy order and everything else gets sucked down the same hole.

    • Hi Kevin: Thanks for your profound comment.Yes, I totally agree. But, I see the human “disorganization” as a contrast with the wonder and power of Nature’s self organizing systems. Indeed, these leaderless systems work in wonderful harmony while the chaotic and dysfunctional human systems with leaders can be pretty terrible. While I have no solution, I wonder what lessons that Nature can teach mankind only if humanity would shed its arrogance and hubris.

  2. wouldn’t it be wonderful to apply these principles to the question of how to maintain / sustain our biosphere vs. destroying it with carbon emissions. How is it that humans get a pass to destroy their home? Is this another example of a species growing out beyond its limits only to crash soon after?

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