Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cultural superorganisms

Nature tends to produce hierarchies of organisms. For example, eucaryotes are composed of many previously-free-living cells - and eusocial colonies are composed of large numbers of independently-mobile animals. The easiest way for nature to make large organisms is by clumping lots of smaller ones together. When the interests of organisms in groups become sufficiently closely aligned, they can behave functionally like a single larger organism.

In modern times, we can see this process caught in action at various stages. In an ant's nest, there's still some conflicts between individual ants in a colony - as a result of them having different interests - for example as a result of not sharing all their genes with one another. A Portuguese man o' war shows another type of superorganism under construction. It is not an ordinary multicellular organism but rather a colony - a symbiotic union of a large number of much smaller animals.

Cultural evolution also produces superorganisms. Cultural kin selection and cultural eusociality are usually involved. Companies and religions are prominent examples of superorganisms with cultural components. However, it must be said that these contain organic components as well as cultural ones. Purely cultural superorganisms are mostly something for the future - but we do see some largely cultural superorganisms. Data centres are one of the best examples. There are unmanned data centres - sometimes called "lights-out data centres" - which have no human operators. These can't reproduce without humans yet, but their structure depends heavily on memes. In the future we can expect to see robot swarms - which are even more obviously reminiscent of eusocial insect colonies.

In the organic realm, superorganisms tend to remain colonial creatures. They can't seem to refactor themselves into proper whole organisms. Perhaps doing so doesn't pay - there are probably benefits associated with maintaining a modular cellular structure, to do with regeneration. However, perhaps cultural superorganisms will do a better job of refactoring themselves into first class organisms.

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