This week I’ve been corresponding with television people about SuperOrganisms, hopefully to clarify an ant evolution narrative for an upcoming program. So I’ve been thinking about what the concept means, and whether it’s useful.
Broadly, the Superorganism concept is an analogy that relates animal societies like bee and ant colonies to individual organisms, stating that large social aggregations share key properties with multi-cellular individuals. The queen ant as an ovary; the foragers as arms that gather food; soldier ants as an immune system. Natural selection acts on the whole of a colony the same way it acts on a single individual.
Superorganisms are controversial among biologists, in no small part because the concept is defined differently by different people. Some use it more as a metabolic metaphor, others as an evolutionary construct. Some of us can’t shake a nagging sense that SuperOrganisms gained public favor more for reasons of marketing than research. (Remember fractals?)
Still, I like the concept. As a heuristic it has power, even if its scientific potential remains unclear.
I’d like to hear your opinions, though. With the questions below in mind, what do YOU think about the Superorganism?
- Does it have scientific merit beyond mere analogy? In other words, does the concept propose testable hypothesis that would not otherwise be explored?
- How is the term best defined? Do insect workers need to be completely sterile for a society to be a superorganism? Are all societies superorganisms? Where do we draw the line?
- If a superorganism is unusually big, could we call it a Ginorganism?