NO, don’t get excited, I said super organisms. Yesterday’s The Scientist led with an article on Super organisms, which reminds me of my invertebrate neural and endocrinology lectures of years past. I used to be fascinated by the idea of super organisms, which is simply an organism of many organisms.

Being a prokaryotic biologist, I tend to think of things at the scale of planktonic (free-living) single cells, and occasionally we enjoy the concept of cooperative living in biofilms or other more complex structured consortia like stromatolites. Ultimately, evolution has resulted in multicellular organisms, some of which were further refined into organisms consisting of many different tissues with disparate characteristics; most people are not unfamiliar with this.

An interesting idea in biology is the idea of a super organism, where parallels can be drawn between the essential components of a complex higher organism, such as a mammal, and individual organisms within the super organism:

It is a rather contentious idea as it runs into the semanto-scientific diction of what exactly constitutes an organism. Are we limited by our usual scale-interpretation as Humans, where an abstract idea of a super organism clashes with our own biological recognition of what constitutes an organism? The big question is of course, how can such a super organism evolve? This is one of those great challenges that evolutionary biologists love.

At what scale does natural selection, the active force of evolution, have its effect? Does it act at the level of the individual? Yes, probably; I am still with Dawkins on the idea of selection acting at the level of the gene. However, for natural selection to have an effect, it depends on individual differences within a population, and crucially, on the ability of the “fittest” individual to survive and reproduce. However, in Ant colonies the Ants are sterile drones; the reproductive entity of a such a super organism is the queen of an Ant colony.

Thus we have a situation where “unfit” worker Ants can result in the collapse of a colony, therefore selection feeds back to the Queen where reproductive success is dependant upon producing workers that are capable of fulfilling their roles in the provision of food, looking after eggs, defending the colony and building infrastructure; thus a very indirect form of selection. So is the superorganism being selected or not?

Good question,  it’ll be fun finding out.



I used to subscribe to the excellent periodical NewStatesman, but seeing as I can read it for free at uni, I stopped my subscription. Since then I have received a regular stream of mail shots bearing offerings of cheap re-subscription deals. I usually file them in the bin without reading, but the most recent one caught my attention for their slack grammar [sic]:

With the global banking system in its worst state for decades, with its effects now hitting the real world…the newly elected US President Obama having to cope with massive voter expectations…ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan plus horrific scenes in Africa…not to mention food and energy price hikes, global warming and the increasing energy demands of China and the other emerging powers…

Call me fastidious, but what’s with all the ellipses? I know they’re trying to give it an off-the-tongue/live news feed feel, but it’s not necessary; it’s not like they’re quoting from actual articles, thus it’s just a slack way of constructing an information rich paragraph without bothering to punctuate.

Hidden in plain sight…

So it seems that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is finally back in the lime light, and about time. In the past couple of years the coverage of the atrocities that have been ongoing there have meritted only the most glancing coverage in the world press, not least of which has been the coverage of the murder of Congolese Gorillas in Virunga National Park.

There are well over 4 million people estimated dead as a result of the rebel insurrection since 1998, with a further 1,200 per day dying, this is a stupefying statistic. Comically Gordon Brown has announced recently that DR Congo must not become another Rwanda, referring of course to the 1994 genocide that was largely ignored by the Western world until it was too late.

Firstly I would say, too little, too late Mr Brown and Mr Blair, you were all too busy pouring money and lives into fighting over oil in Iraq to pay any real attention, and we all know the UN is now a powerless entity after Bush rode roughshod over it to get to Iraq; indeed, the UN have been accused of merely being “tourists” in the DR Congo, despite it being their largest peacekeeping mission.

Secondly, the current news coverage describing the current increased fighting in the Eastern DR Congo would make it seem to some people that the conflict in DR Congo is somehow a recent thing! Whilst peace accords and on paper stability were announced around 2003, and again in January this year, the conflict has been allowed to brood for so long that we now once again find Rwandan Hutu rebels are able to re-enact violence towards Tutsis living in DR Congo, not to mention the numerous other ethnic groups living there.

As I have written before when reviewing Slavoj Žižek’s “Violence“, Žižek believes that we have a ‘will to ignorance’; Four million dead is beyond any mental boundary scale that we are able to deal with, nothing in our evolutionary development prepares us for dealing with numbers on these scales, thus we can’t approach a true reflection of emotion and outrage that smaller numbers would engender. Perhaps now, with renewed interest the West really will take note?

BBC’s Q&A on the subject.