Superorganisms…

[ratings]

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.

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2 thoughts on “Superorganisms…

  1. hey there, found this really interesting and useful.
    Am doing an art project at the moment based on the superorganism and possibly how Hitler used the theories of Darwin to justify the terrible things he did. Would be very interested to hear what sources you used for this article and also if you’ve seen anything else on the subject matter
    Thanks
    Gordon

  2. I’m not sure if there is any particular relevance between the super-organism and Hitler’s regime; one can draw paralogues between most armies and civilisations, long before Darwin, indeed long before Christianity. It would be remiss of me not to point out that this particular juxtaposition of names, Darwin and Hitler, is a popular creationist subject; since the Discovery Institute associate and ID-supporter Richard Weikart, published his book ‘From Darwin to Hitler’.

    Without getting buried in a Godwin’s Law thread, I think the important point to remember is that evolution (being the ultimate aim to discredit), in itself, makes no moral judgements. It is a fundamental principle and is neither good nor evil. The links that people draw between Darwin and Hitler are tenuous at best. Certainly Hitler could have derived no inspiration from the man himself, who died a generation earlier, was not a eugenicist, was no more racist that the average Victorian Englishman, and spent much of his practical life studying worms. Nor does sullying a man’s name have any bearing on any theories he may have developed; such a stand point is an ad hominem argument, and is a logical fallacy.

    I think, on the whole, the link between the two is abused to suit the means and ends of anti-evolution proponents. By the same right we could draw a link between Sir Isaac Newton and any one of the murderers in history who have pushed someone off a cliff. Just because Newton identified the theory of gravity doesn’t mean that Newton, or gravity, is bad.

    One of the points Richard Dawkins often makes is that by understanding natural selection, we can abrogate some of its harsh realities, and move away from being dependent upon it, and subject to it. Social Darwinism is abhorrent as it merely means to actively submit to the process, which is very much beneath an enlightened human society.

    To be honest, I’m not sure how Hilter would have ever been able to resolve the dichotomy of what happened to the original Aryan race that he so wished to restore; from a Darwinistic view-point natural selection acted against them. The idea that he would base his ‘superior’ race upon such an evolutionary ‘unfit’ race would have been anathema to Hitler.

    No, I’m afraid to say that the Nazis were good old fashioned occultists, and this is where their ethnic cleansing motivation can be sought.

    With regards source material, there is ‘The Scientist’ article I linked to at the start. There is a smattering of scientific papers (you will have access to those with green links to free articles), or there is wikipedia.

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