Superorganisms

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.