Recent discussions and recommended readings–including Iain McGilchrist’s 2009 tome on cerebral hemispheric asymmetry–have me convinced that we of western culture have a severe deficit in holistic thinking, an excessive left-hemisphere dominance that makes us conceptualize most things atomistically and conceive of their relationships in strictly linear terms, making us virtually unable to grasp the self-organizing wholes of living organisms, planetary systems, and–the primary theme of this post–our human subgroupings. In order for us to understand the way we humans create our social reality, constructing those “ontologically subjective” entities that have no independent existence other than in what Searle calls our “collective intentionality”–entities like money, debt, nation-states and the like–we have to be able to visualize ourselves as human primates organized in social groupings that collectively share strong beliefs in the existence of such “things” and who pattern our cooperative activities in the real world around these ontologically subjective imaginings. If we can come to “see” such groupings–subgroupings of our one human species–and the conscious and unconscious processes at work which maintain them as wholes, functioning as “superorganisms,” in the coinage of E. O. Wilson, we will be much closer to being able to conceptually transcend those national/cultural subgroup boundaries, enabling us to 1) put an end to the threat posed to planetary life by intergroup warfare and aggression and 2) revise our ontologically subjective constructions–economics and politics–so as to deal with the ontologically objective global changes we have set in motion that now threaten us, not as disparate subgroups, but as a most vulnerable species within the biosphere.

For example, how can we understand what’s going on with the secrecy and spying apparently being conducted by the U.S. government? What’s it all about? This is a superorganismal grouping–or rather a much smaller, tighter group within the US Superorganism as a whole, playing the control role–devoted to policing its boundaries while penetrating the boundaries of other sorts of wholes, organismal (individual) and superorganismal (national, corporate, political) that might possibly threaten “its” continued existence. Wherefore cometh this intensely focused effort, if we humans are “nothing but” isolated individual organisms acting in our own “rational” self-interest, voting to participate in a democracy whose major concerns are simply how to weigh Haidt’s “six moral values” when it comes to taxation and governmental social programs? I would say it cometh from our deep primate emotional core, subject to millennia of group selection, which drives us to organize ourselves into superorganisms and act to preserve, and if possible to extend (usually through aggression), the bounded existence of those superorganisms even at great cost to our individual lives–we are NOTHING LIKE the disconnected “rational economic atoms” our left hemispheres would have us believe! The powers that are currently running the show within the US Superorganism are obsessed with maintaining a bubble-like boundary around the members of the subgroup (a subgrouping of our species, i.e., American citizens as a subgrouping within Homo sapiens), in the physical world erecting formidable border fences and tightening “security” at points of ingress and egress, in the conceptual world selectively presenting information to those “within” and to those “outside of” the wall of the bubble. “Terrorism” is continually dangled before us as a threat to the existence of the group, our superorganism, and it works because of our deep emotional wiring, making us fearful, compliant, and willing to obey the alpha-primates who promise to care for us by fighting off the “external” threat–even though our “rational” minds tell us that many more of us die every year from, e.g., auto accidents and dietary excess.

Moreover, Jeff has brought up, and soon, I hope, will post on a phenomenon he calls “screening out”–the way individuals caught up in their institutional roles within superorganisms of various sorts and scales actively work to keep out facts, ideas and insights that would lead people to question and consider changing the organizing paradigm that maintains the currently instantiated superorganismal structure. How does this work? Some of it, obviously, is quite conscious–terms that newscasters aren’t allowed to use, issues and events that they are discouraged or prohibited from reporting on–but I suspect quite a lot of the “screening out” behavior is operative below the level of full consciousness, where people instinctively just “know” that certain things are not to be spoken of or allowed to penetrate public awareness, because members of “the group” instinctively acted to maintain its integrity all the way back when we were nonlinguistic primates, and now instinctively know how to police its conceptual boundaries, protect the impenetrable shell of the belief bubble that walls it off from competing superorganisms. Such social/psychological forces are operative within other superorganisms besides nation-states, of course–in corporations, sports teams, religious groupings–but for now the nation-state subgrouping dominates the world scene, simply because of the firepower this entity can muster. Little wonder that “speaking truth to power” is hard to do.

If academia gets over its left-hemisphere exuberance in time to start seriously examining our predilection for organizing ourselves into superorganisms and the evolutionarily embedded forces at play in maintaining them, can we pull back enough, as individually conscious epistemic and moral agents, to choose to change the current structure of our human social reality? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a try. How to get academia to do so? Well, us talking among ourselves about these issues is a good beginning; if what we say has some basis in fact, and we make some headway in putting the picture together, its own interestingness and potential fruitfulness (re Thomas Kuhn) should recruit some other academics. How to get the larger public to become aware of these processes and discover their own agency to choose to effect change? I think that could even take place rapidly, once those within the media, now with a global reach, begin to transmit a new message instead of “screening it out” in favor of endlessly repeating the old, subgroup-stabilizing, ultimately self-destructive ones.

9 thoughts on “Superorganisms

  1. Hi Ronnie,

    First sentence – absolutely agree, apart from maybe the word “holistic” is a bit of a catch-all word with little added meaning. As McGilchrist says, quoting Einstein, “We [under “western” influence] honour the servant [the rational mind], but have forgotten the gift [the intuitive mind]”

    Superorganisms – yes too, not just E O Wilson, but general enlightened pan-neo-Darwinism, sees “patterns” of social and intellectual behaviour as “emergent species” – it’s the kind of language I use all the time.

    And “Governance” you will have seen from recent posts is the recurring core topic of mine (I wouldn’t single out the US Government – but ANY human enterprise governed by such behaviours). With that kind of model of rationality, all group decision-making suffers. So yes again.

    There will always be “groups” (I hope), so we need superorganisms to prosper – they are we – we just need to change “our” decision-making models that govern group behaviour.


    • Hi Ian–

      Just a few comments on your response to my post from yesterday. I have not read far enough into McGilchrist to fully grasp the way he uses the terms “the Master” and “his emissary” (seemingly reflected in parallel terms in the above quote from Einstein), but it sounds, from this passage on p. 428, that the former refers to the right hemisphere and the latter to the left: “The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible, but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master.” I look forward to better understanding how McGilchrist conceives of that relationship as I read the book in its entirety.

      But your sense that the word “holistic” has become a catch-all term with little meaning is most unfortunate; it seems to illustrate the way many people have conflated serious brain science regarding hemispheric asymmetry with what some would call New Age woo-woo and then proceeded to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Scientists working with patients who have had their corpus callosum sectioned (“split-brain patients”) discovered that the isolated right hemisphere attends to the whole visual field and takes in the overall shape or pattern of an object or image, while the isolated left focuses on parts and details. Patients who have experienced a right-hemisphere stroke, for example, and therefore depend on only the functioning left hemisphere, often “neglect” the entire left side of space; as McGilchrist writes on p. 45, “So extreme can this phenomenon be that the sufferer may fail to acknowledge the existence of anyone standing to the left, the left half of the face of a clock, or the left page of a newspaper or book, and will even neglect to wash, shave or dress the left half of the body, sometimes going so far as to deny that it exists at all.” At the bottom of the page is an illustration of some attempts by these patients to draw a clock, a house, and a cat; they are incomplete, not “whole” pictures–only the right side of the figures is sketched in. In “normal” people who have no anatomic deficits but whose left hemispheres are excessively dominant (as I believe McGilchrist is claiming is the case with western culture), these tendencies are reflected in an overattention to detail at the expense of “seeing the big picture”; this lopsidedness could be extended, theoretically, to account for the persistence of conceptually “reducing” whole, functioning, living organisms down to isolated “parts” and failing to “put them back together again,” to explain the emphasis on analysis at the expense of synthesis, and other such problems that have already been identified on this list.

      Skipping forward to McGilchrist’s concluding chapter, he asks us to imagine what a “world” built entirely by the left hemisphere would look like:
      “We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focused, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves. In general, the ‘bits’ of anything, the parts into which it could be disassembled, would come to seem more important, more likely to lead to knowledge and understanding, than the whole, which would come to be seen as no more than the sum of the parts. Ever more narrowly focussed attention would lead to an increasing specialization and technalising of knowledge. This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in turn, would seem more ‘real’ than what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped. . . .” (pgs 428-429). Sound familiar? Other traits of the left-hemisphere “world” include a tendency toward abstraction, quantification, number manipulation, technological production, and bureaucratization.

      Interestingly enough, McGilchrist imagines what kind of government would be constructed by constructed by the left hemisphere acting alone: “Such a government would seek total control–it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp [in the physical, right-handed sense] and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. . . .” (p. 431). This is written in 2009, a few years before the coming to pass of all these things became public knowledge, and it was apparently supposed to be speculative, since the vast majority of us humans are outfitted with a right hemisphere as well as a left one–but what has happened to our “world” seems to attest to a stark degree of hemispheric imbalance as far as relative functionality is concerned. So a concerted effort at rebalancing would seem to be in order by those of us who have become aware of the problem–which will include striving to forge a “holistic” understanding of organisms and superorganisms, and a thorough reconsideration of what “governance” should mean.
      Good thoughts, Ian!

      • Ronnie, Alan Rayner says these ideas much better than I.

        Holistic is unfortunate partly because it is simply devalued by pejorative rhetorical misuse – as I hinted and you elaborated. Though please don’t feel you need to lecture me in the value of recognising more complete, joined up thinking using the “whole” brain, the whole of eastern plus western viewpoints, supported by better physiological understanding of real brains. But that’s not the whole / hole problem 😉

        The problem with thinking of “holism” as the antidote to partial, exclusive, left-brained rationality, is that it is still in a way arrogant left-brained mentality to think it is just some missing ingredient we need to add, another part to make a whole, as if there is some “whole” view of the whole solution to the problem. That is, the word “holism” is unfortunate also in still suggesting there is some objective whole we are striving for.

        As Alan points out it’s better to think in terms of “holes” than “wholes” – something which led David Morey and I to Jonathan Haidt and Terrence Deacon and Daniel Kahneman, after studying Iain McGilchrist.

        Receptiveness to possibility being more valuable (and real) than seeking whole solutions to hole problems.

        • Hi Ian–

          Interesting comment. You say “The problem with thinking of “holism” as the antidote to partial, exclusive, left-brained rationality, is that it is still in a way arrogant left-brained mentality to think it is just some missing ingredient we need to add, another part to make a whole, as if there is some “whole” view of the whole solution to the problem. That is, the word “holism” is unfortunate also in still suggesting there is some objective whole we are striving for.”

          I think I have a serious disagreement with you, if you are arguing that there are NOT “objective wholes” that exist in the real, physical world. You, as a living organism, are one such “whole”; all of your bodily processes are continually in motion to keep your “organism” alive, in a kind of metabolic homeostasis (a dynamic “homeostasis”) and a state of physiological functioning which includes (does not “reduce” anything to anything else) all of your mental/psychological/social functioning. If you’re lucky, the physician you consult when you’re feeling ill will “see” you in this way (although unfortunately, the odds of having that sort of “luck” seem to be diminishing rapidly in this era). Other animals are similarly objective “wholes,” and so are plants, ecosystems, the global Earth system–not to see them in this three-dimensional (at _least_ three dimensions, as whole “objects” or systems–one might want to conceptualize-in multiple other sorts of “dimensions,” but my point in insisting that we visualize them in 3-D is that they are NOT fully describable in 2-D or 1-D terms, just as we humans are NOT residents of Flatland!) way is not to “see” them with your right hemisphere (“holistically”) at all.

          However, I agree fully with this statement: “it is still in a way arrogant left-brained mentality to think it is just some missing ingredient we need to add, another part . . . ,” and I would say that to believe that it leads to the notion that there aren’t any objective wholes in existence is to confuse epistemology with ontology; the one idea simply doesn’t follow from the other. To think that the solution to all of our problems is just to add another “part” to an existing conglomeration of “parts” is a paradigm example of what the linear, “A plus B plus C plus D plus . . .” type of “logical” or “rational” thinking that we’re all schooled on consists of (this thinking is 1-D, not even 2-D). This confusion regarding how we should go about trying to deal with our situation is an epistemic problem, a problem of perception, a problem with the way most of us humans who are infected with “western” culture “see the world”; whether or not there ARE “objective wholes” is different, an ontological issue, though perhaps one that requires at least some right-brained thinking to even be recognized as an issue separate from the epistemic one. But indeed, it IS an arrogant way of thinking, and a significant dimension of our “problem” IS the “arrogance” of the left hemisphere, seemingly thinking that its way of perceiving is the ONLY way, therefore denying the existence of a large “part” of our reality, denying illness when it is functioning “alone” (anosognosia), and confabulating, making up a story out of thin air to “cover” its own lack of fully grasping reality (see William Hirstein, _Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation_, MIT Press, 2009 for an interesting examination of these clinical signs and their potential implications in our culture).

          Learning to see the ongoing flow of Life (including the “life of the universe,” the “monster of energy, . . a sea of forces flowing and rushing together; eternally changing, eternally flooding back . . ,” as Nietzsche put it, viewing, with Schopenhauer, the “will” extending even to what we would today consider “nonliving”) over “time,” as we mammals perceive it, seems yet another epistemic challenge for us to broach, this being the general way in which I understand Alan’s point about thinking in terms of “holes,” at least until someone can correct me. I agree that adding this dimension will be important to getting a grip on ourselves (and everything else) existentially, but right now I’d be happy to settle for our human species just starting to grok the existence of whole, functioning organisms, superorganisms, and ecosystems, since preserving those is what’s at stake right now.

          • Dear Ronnie,

            I guess I do have to say that I agree with Ian’s comment regarding the problematic notion of ‘wholeness’ as ‘a thing entire of it self’. By saying that there are no such things as discrete wholes or parts, Ian is recognizing the paradox built in to definitive logic, which imposes a false dichotomy between material form and space instead of recognizing the mutuality of each in the other.

            My paper entitled ‘Space Cannot Be Cut – why self-identity naturally includes neighbourhood’ addresses this problem.

            To deny ‘wholeness’ in the sense of ‘completedness’ is not to deny the dynamic identity of natural flow-form as an energetic inclusion of its spatial neighbourhood.

            As I have said elsewhere, there is a mismatch between what is experientially obvious and its abstract conceptualization, and this is what Ian was pointing to.

            Correspondingly, living organisms like you, me and Ian are not ‘is-lands’, entire of our selves but (as you actually describe) dynamic in-habitants of our natural neighbourhood.

            We need to move on from the static logic of ‘whole or nothing’ to the flow-logic of ‘space in dynamic form and dynamic form in space’ – i.e. dynamic locality, not fixed point.

            Or, as I put it in a tweet this morning:

            To make natural sense we need to move out of the abstract logic of zero OR one to the flow-logic of zero IN one.… 12 November 2013

  2. Ronnie, thanks for the great post. I agree. And, among other things, I like the way you described and characterized the “screening out” phenomenon in these terms. Very helpful.

    I’d like to include a link here to a recording of a talk I attended a few months back. But I have to find it first. I’ll do that as soon as I can.

    Also, alas, a key question is “How to get academia to do so?”, as you put it. That’s the hard one. Still thinking.

    Cheers for now, and thanks,


    • Ronnie/others, earlier this year, I saw a Commonwealth Club (SF) talk by Peter Coyote, titled (somewhat oddly) ‘The End of Intelligence’. A great deal of it related to using different parts of one’s brain/intuition and so forth. Other parts were interesting as well. If you aren’t aware of him, Peter has a very, very interesting background. In any case, you can hear the whole talk (including a question I asked at the very end) on the Commonwealth Club’s website. The date of the talk was May 21, so if it’s not shown directly on the page at this link, below, then just go forward or back a page at a time to find the talk listed (Peter Coyote, The End of Intelligence, May 21) and click the button. Cheers.

    • Hi Alan–

      I have reread your essay “Living with Opposite-Mindedness” (I remember you posted this once before), and I find much (I think) to agree with in it, but I’m not quite sure what you mean by “the iniquities of ‘whole/definitive’ ways of abstract/rationalistic thinking,” so I can’t tell if we are on the same page or not with respect to what we’re trying to say.

      When you say you are “quick to recognise and appreciate the truths and falsehoods on both sides of an argument, rather than feel obliged to favour one over the other,” it sounded to me on first take like you are rejecting dualistic thinking, the either/or, good/bad, black/white approach that makes it difficult to engage in the kind of both/and understanding that would, for example, see us humans as beings who _both_ often behave as members of a social grouping _and_ are capable of acting as autonomous individual agents–on this we would agree. Feminist philosophers have long identified dualistic thinking, moreover, as the conceptual underpinning of relationships of domination and oppression, as when a certain characteristic–masculine gender, for example, or white skin, is identified as “superior” to its opposite and, according to the “logic of domination,” believed to justify those possessing it in subjugating those lacking it. You do speak of “opposite-mindedness” as leading to “a domineering egotistic quest for control over what is perceived as ‘other than self’ or a submissive self-subjugation to other.” On the other hand, when you say you are troubled by the “needless cruelties and conflicts that arise between intransigently opposed attitudes of mind,” it sounds like what is most worrisome to you is simply the fact of two people holding different positions on a topic, each refusing to listen to or compromise with the other, which seems to be a different sort of relationship–two equally stubborn combatants, rather than a dominant “superior” and a submissive (or brutally bullied) “inferior.”

      These sorts of concerns seem to underlie much of what you say, but then there are other passages which criticize “objective, reductionist science,” and I am somewhat unclear about the connection that you are making here. When I urge people to utilize their right-hemisphere processes to recognize wholes–living organisms, and also groupings of organisms that come together to form “superorganisms”–I am rejecting the reductionism that tries to analyze these wholes down into disparate parts and pieces (and certainly the kind of thinking that blinds itself to living beings altogether by seeing only colliding billiard-ball atoms!), but I would still maintain that these organisms and superorganismal groupings exist “objectively” (unlike the “ontologically subjective” entities that we humans construct entirely within our own belief systems, entities that have no independent existence of their own) and hence are appropriate objects for scientific study. Good science does not have to be reductionistic!

      Watching your youtube video, where you ask “what, most fundamentally is needed to make natural form distinguishable from its surroundings?” and demonstrate by holding up your hand and then removing it from center stage, leaving its “surroundings,” does indeed seem to get at a difference between left-hemisphere focal attention on a particular versus right-hemisphere awareness of the “background” in the part-whole relationship. You say “opposite-mindedness is built in to the very foundations of abstract logic, language, mathematics, science, religion, education and governance that have supported its façade for millennia,” and this statement brings to mind Val Plumwood’s criticism of classical logic, where “negation (-p) is interpreted as the universe without p,” such that “not-p has no independent role , but is introduced as merely alien to the primary notion p,” thereby establishing “a maximally strong relation of exclusion between p and this other, in comparison to other logical systems which define much weaker exclusion relationships” (Feminism and the Mastery of nature, 56-57). Plumwood identifies the p of classical logic with “the master” who depends for his own prominence entirely upon the contrasting “background” but yet denies its contribution, much as occurs in oppressive gender relationships and in exploitative, instrumentalizing relationships with nature, and I have written on her thinking, drawing a linkage between the logic of “the master” and the left hemisphere’s fixation on the part to the exclusion of the whole. Using both sides of our brains would enable us to utilize focal attention while maintaining awareness of the larger whole and the part’s relationship to it.

      When you go on to move your hand rapidly, however, demonstrating the dynamism of the relationships, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s Heraclitean flux, his insistence that our belief in a universe composed of fixed, static “objects” is false and sometimes dangerously misleading. I think this is yet another aspect of the problem with our western way of thinking–we miss the ongoing, unfolding, _liveliness_ of the world we live in, and the agency that imbues every living being.

      In short, I think you are onto some very important issues here. However, it seems to me that the different aspects of our problematic way of thinking need to be teased apart and delineated a little more clearly. The term “opposite-mindedness” may create confusion as to what, exactly, you are taking issue with; “natural inclusionality” seems to me a little better, but still requiring quite a bit of explanation to get your meaning across. But, given the ramifications of our continuing to think in our standard, hemispherically lopsided, and ultimately Earth-destructive way, the latter is well worth doing!

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