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Synergy and the Evolution of 'Superorganisms'
Past, Present, and Future
Prepared for the Annual Meeting,
Association for Politics and the Life Sciences,
August 11-14, 2002
The so-called "organismic analogy," which has graced social and political theory (off and on) ever since Plato, has reemerged in evolutionary biology in recent years as a way of characterizing key properties of social organization in the natural world - although the preferred moniker these days is Herbert Spencer's term "superorganism". (Biologists often give credit to one of their own, William Morton Wheeler, but Wheeler's writings appeared several decades later.) As Spencer himself argued, the organismic analogy is justified by the existence of common functional properties at "higher levels" of biological organization, including especially "functional differentiation" and "integration" with respect to overarching, collective goals or objectives; there is a functional commonality between organisms and superorganisms. But more important, superorganisms may also constitute a distinct unit of selection (and adaptive change) in the evolutionary process. In accordance with the so-called "Synergism Hypothesis," the combined functional effects that are produced by "wholes" are the primary causal agency underlying the evolution of cooperation and complexity in nature. It is the synergies (the economic payoffs, broadly speaking) that are the drivers for evolutionary complexification. (A number of illustrations will be provided, including bacterial colonies, social insects, symbiotic partnerships and social mammals.) Without exception, however, superorganisms are also dependent upon cybernetic (communications and control) processes - or "governance." Accordingly, human superorganisms (and their political systems) are not sui generis but are variations on a major evolutionary theme. Indeed, it is likely that social organization played a key part in human evolution, and in the rise of civilization. (The accumulating evidence will be briefly reviewed in this paper.) A modern human society represents an elaboration upon an ancient hominid survival strategy. It is, quintessentially, a "collective survival enterprise." This perspective casts a different light on the ongoing process of cultural evolution and the much-debated prospects for global governance, or political "devolution" - or both. Paradoxical as it may seem, the current, dualistic trend toward both more and less inclusive superorganisms may continue as the economic and political topography and the functional needs for governance continue to evolve. Accordingly, a global superorganism may well be emerging even as traditional nation-states are devolving. The history of the European Union suggests that an explicit "vision" of a global superorganism can serve as an important motivator and catalyst for this process. However, this is only the beginning, and deep problems currently exist. To quote the distinguished 20th century evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky: "The future is not vouchsafed by any law of nature, but it can be striven for."
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