EusocialityEusociality is a type of social organisation used by ants and bees - in which many individuals form a highly cooperative group and reproductive capabilities are suppressed in most individuals. Multicellular organisms originally formed out of eusocial groups of cells that clumped together for the advantages that group living brought to them.
Eusociality is common. If you count multicellularity as an advanced form of eusociality, then it is found everywhere. Even if you only consider cases where the individuals still have some kind of semi-independent existence, the prevalence of ants and bees in the biosphere means that eusociality is still a very important phenomenon.
Though meme-infested humans do exhibit ultrasociality, we are not yet near to eusociality - since we don't exhibit reproductive suppression. While it's possible to imagine a future populated by sterile clones of celebrities - and other in-demand individuals - we aren't there yet.
Eusociality is one of nature's ways of building cooperative systems. If offspring can reproduce independently, but travel slowly they often compete with their parents and their siblings as they are forced to compete with them for resources. A eusocial colony is a simple way of building cooperative systems on a large scale.
The widespread occurance of eusociality in the organic realm, raises the issue of what its status is in the cultural realm. It turns out that eusociality is common there too. There are many cases where reproductive 'queens' and sterile 'workers' can be identified in cultural evolution. Books are manufactured in factories - where most of the copies are made - and most of the copies will be destroyed before they manage to reproduce. However the existence of the copies acts to channel resources back towards the reproductive individual - enabling them to gain power and produce more copies - for example by book sales funding marketing and advertising.
Cultural eusocialityEusociality is an extreme case altruism based on kin selection - in which workers give up their own opportunities to reproduce to help their queen to reproduce. It is also widely seen in the realm of human culture. There are many cases where the equivalent of cultural "queens" send out cultural "workers" out into the world to channel resources back towards the queens. This pattern is seen with consumer electronics, recipes, factories, server-side software, digital rights management, computer games - and many other phenomena. Cultural kin selection is involved in the explanation for these kind of phenomena.
To give a specific example, the use of patriotism to cause soldiers to sacrifice themselves in battle is an example of sterile workers sacrificing themselves for other reproductive individuals. However, dying in battle is highly likely to be bad for your own genes - so why do soldiers do it? What the deaths of soldiers are adaptive for is the patriotism memeplex. That exists in the form of other copies which directly benefit as a result of the sacrifices of the soldiers. The instance of the patriotism memeplex in the soldiers dies along with its human host - but copies of that memeplex in the generals and politicians survive - and so nationalism spreads. The soldiers are infected by memeoids – their brains are infested with necrotrophic memes which were memetically engineered by the state.
Offspring sterilityIn the case of books, their non-digitized form makes copying them challenging. In many other cases, specific sterility features can also be identified. Patents, trademarks, digital rights management - all are oriented towards preventing unauthorised copying of sterile workers - with the aim of increasing the resources that are channeled back towards the original source.
It is usually easy to copy cultural information - so, in cases where reproductive memes are surrounded by sterile workers require special explanation. Several factors can result in offspring sterility - including:
- Obfuscation - this protects consumer electronics and microprocessors.
- Cryptography - This involves using technical defenses to make copying difficult - resulting in Digital Rights Management;
- Legal threats - Some types of copying are prohibited by copyright, patent and trademark law;
- Watermarks - This helps to protect some videos, images and money;
- Registration - Some software ensures that it is not copied by "phoning home" - contacting its manufacturer over the internet;
- Dongles - Dependencies on something that is not easy to copy.
Offspring sterility is one of the hallmarks of cultural eusiciality that distinguishes it from simple situations where there is an individual meme which lots of identical copies happen to have been made.
Cultural cloningMoney illustrates that cultural kin can be identical clones. Money is an example of cultural eusociality which involves identical clones. Notes and coins are not normally copied from. When they are, the copiers are hunted down and imprisoned. Technical measures are used to prevent copying - such as watermarks, metal strips and very detailed patterns which are hard to scan. Notes and coins are usually produced from reproductive individuals inside the treasury. The money in circulation plays the role of workers, the machines in the treasury that produce them are the queens, and the the blueprints for those machines are their heritable material. Money illustrates that the kin involved can be identical clones - as they are in conventional multicellular organisms. Identical clones usually offer the best possible chance of kin selection resulting in mutual cooperation.
Parental manipulationThe mechanism responsible for eusociality is typically the same in the organic and cultural realms. Kin selection acts in both realms - the sterile workers and their queens are closely related. In both cases parental manipulation is often involved. The queens make the workers sterile by building them without reproductive parts, so that they can better help their maker without getting distracted.
Eusociality - or extended phenotype?When considering cultural eusociality, one issue is whether the sterile forms are better viewed as individuals in their own right - or the extended phenotype of the reproductives. For example, a cake factory makes "sterile" cakes - which are rarely copied from directly. It might be unorthodox to describe those as "sterile workers" - since they don't really contain the same "heritable material" as is found in the cake factory. The process of baking makes "reverse-engineering" the cake challenging - and the cake might better be regarded as the extended phenotype of the cake factory. I call this the "hair and nails` issue because, while human somatic cells are a lot like sterile workers, hair and fingernail tissues are not.
PrevalenceCultural eusociality is ubiquitous. The printing press produced some of the first mass-produced identical copies of memes. These days, digital copying has reduced the cost of copying further - and some web pages and videos have been reproduced billions of times. In many cases, these highly-copied digital systems exhibit offspring sterility, one of the hallmarks of eusociality. This is often implemented via "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) systems.
This article is based on an excerpt from my forthcoming "Memes" book.