What Good is the SuperOrganism Concept?

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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?

  1. Does it have scientific merit beyond mere analogy? In other words, does the concept propose testable hypothesis that would not otherwise be explored?
  2. 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?
  3. If a superorganism is unusually big, could we call it a Ginorganism?

32 thoughts on “What Good is the SuperOrganism Concept?”

  1. I am not sure about the biological merits of the concept, but I do think the concept itself is useful because it attempts to formally acknowledge the emergent properties of complex interacting insect societies.

    Since many other systems (both actual and theoretical–remember fractals?) exhibit similar behavior this characterization might be useful if we are using SuperOrganisms as toy examples when we attempt to understand emergent phenomena in a more general sense.

    Then again, I’ve been similarly flummoxed as to whether whole this interdisciplinary study of complex systems (see the Santa Fe institute) will bear genuine fruit or prove to be too ambitious to ever say much at all, but if it does, the SuperOrganism concept will have a home in their models if nowhere else.

  2. Just a few thoughts, off the cuff so to speak:
    I like the idea of the superorganism and do think it has biological merit. That is, there are real similarities between multicellular organisms and say, an ant colony, as you describe, and these need exploring.
    I am primarily trained as an ecologist and in ecology we have had a variety of ideas which have been argued about forever, like r and K selection — great ideas and models which push forward the forefront of ecology without necessarily being right. The idea of r and K selection has been poorly defined and therefore, poorly tested but in general, it seems to make some sense biologically. Over the decades given to discussing and testing this concept, many advances in understanding the complexity of organismal level ecology have developed because of this continual struggle to better define, articulate, and test these ideas. So, r and K selection has its usefulness but most ecologists would say it is not THE answer.
    Science is a journey to better answers and more useful explanations. At least for beginning students, the superorganism idea offers a framework to fit ant colonies – otherwise, trying to get your head around the levels of organization and where natural selection may act becomes mind boggling. All kinds of straight biology and ecology fall apart in the face of ant colonies but the superorganism idea gives a way to translate.
    I do think the idea has evolutionary merit, as well. Organisms differ in how their constructs originating from their genomes are organized (whether this is their bodies, their population organization, their behaviors, etc.). Thus, plants are really different from animals, for example, but have similarities in terms of life goals and fitness. This is true for ant colonies vs. other multicellular animals which live more solitary lives. Working with their genomes, these animals have come up with a different answer for achieving evolutionary fitness. The analogy may lead to useful exploration as to what this means genetically and therefore in terms of evolution. That is, there are certain things an animal has to do for fitness but there are a variety of strategies and organizations to do so. Maybe, it is like what many have found in developmental biology – it is a matter of gene regulation for the whole life strategy.
    Just bringing up the question causes many of us to think more deeply about what does superorganism mean and how to test the idea and if this isn’t a good term for whatever it is we are trying to explain, what is it we mean? – this is very useful.
    And finally, perhaps, those who are bothered by the term superorganism have seen THEM too many times.

  3. I agree that the SuperOrganism concept is useful. I would even go so far as to agree that it is actually the unit of selection for insect societies.

    It seems to me that the SuperOrganism is an evolutionary mechanism for increasing the granularity of selective pressure by incremental selection on PART of the “individual” in that rather than the death of the entire colony, selective pressure can be expressed on the non-reproductive portion of the colony yielding only incremental effects on the reproductive portion. This also allows incremental response, eg production of more of one or another castes.

    Certainly there are enough “selective surfaces” available for experimental determination of the validity of the SuperOrganism concept. All you need is a scientist willing to spend his productive lifetime on the experiment, LOL.

  4. Sorry, forgot to respond to point 2.

    IMO, the action point of selection is the genome of the individual. Therefore, colonies of non-sterile, non-identical genetically females, while they undoubtedly benefit from the colonial aggregation represent more than one individual and more than one SuperOrganism; in effect a SuperOrganism of a SuperOrganism, assuming non-reproductive castes are also present If all reproductive members in a colony are genetically identical, then one is back to the single SuperOrganism, with multiple reproductive parts as well as the rest. Slave taking ants are especially interesting in this regard.

    You must draw the line at the genome of the “individual”, so a parthenogenic lineage can also be considered a superorganism of the same ilk, with a different expression of granularity.

  5. If we are going to call something a superorganism, then this points out that we actually know very little about the basic natural history of these species. For most social insects we don’t know their colony lifespan, maximum colony size, growth rate, age at sexual maturity, or seasonal patterns of growth–all fundamental traits that are used to describe an organism. I think the superorganism concept is useful to point out that we need to begin to measure what we generally think of as individual traits, but for the colony as a whole.

    If we treat colonies as superorganisms to this extent, then I think broad, biologically relevant comparisons could be made between the life stages of a superorganism to those of individual organisms. Certainly people have already borrowed concepts from other fields to apply them to insect colonies. At this summer’s IUSSI, Blaine Cole gave a talk about colony senescence (or lack thereof), and this obviously was an attempt to connect patterns observed in aging individual organisms with aging colonies.

  6. 1. Absolutely. For me, it is most useful as a distinct level of biological organization. There are many clear, testable hypotheses about how environment has shaped phenotype at this level of organization, and whether the patterns and processes differ from those at other levels of organization.

    2. By the level of functional integration among the units at the next lowest level of organization (i.e. individual insects). I think Strassman and Queller (2010) kind of nailed it by looking at integration from the perspective of the balance between cooperation and conflict. Of course, they argue we should just call superorganisms ‘organisms’, and I am inclined to agree. Boundaries are hard to define at the transitions between all levels of organization, but the middle ground is pretty clear.

    It absolutely should not be defined based on a levels-of-selection argument. The definition should be based on a good ‘organism concept’, and that should be as robust as possible against (seemingly endless) disagreements over how these organisms evolved.

    3. No. It then becomes a superduperorganism.

  7. 1. Cool analogy. But I am inclined to think that natural selection acting upon genes is more important than an individual.

    2. No clue, but if the definition includes workers being non-sterile….would could human societies be considered super organism(s)?

    3. Individual organisms can range from small to big…so I think superorganisms can range too!

  8. I wouldn’t mind learning more about the concept of superorganisms. Any recommended books? Perhaps one that serves as a good introduction for the general public?

    1. A good introductory book on the subject is “The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism” by Jurgen Tautz (Springer).

      This book is, of course, about honey bees only, but it gives you a good overview of the superorganism concept.

      In my opinion, the superorganism concept is a good learning tool, useful for understanding how insect societies are constructed and maintained but I don’t take it further than that. For me it remains an analogy.

      Good book, though, and great photos.

      1. Another book to consider is The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson(2009: W.W. Norton and Company)

  9. James.C. Trager

    #s 1&2: Make brain hurt and want to go do something a bit easier, like taxonomic research on ants.

    3: gigorganism

  10. I think that one difficulty with the concept of a Superorganism is the desire of biologists to find *the* unit of selection. Darwin said it was the individual, Dawkins says it is the gene, and Superorganism proponents say that it can be the colony.

    This difficulty is erased when we admit that selective pressures can exist in varying degrees at each of these levels, and that there is no single focus for selection.

    1. This mentioned distinction between selection on an individual vs “the gene” a strawman, since they are one and the same. I would indeed like to see someone separate an individuals genes from the individual and I can just imagine a set of genes slinking around like an amoeba – NOT.

      Of course there is a single focus for selective pressure or there would not be selection at all. But then plenty of folks believe in intelligent design or creationism, if that’s what you had in mind.

        1. -horizontal gene transfer: simple, if the individuals receiving the genes from “other” “taxa” have viable offspring which reflect the transferred genome segment, then both belong to the same species and are NOT “other” “taxa”. The massive lumper I am, LOL. In reality, the species concept clearly is strained in many prokaryotes, since many are all one species by definition of the concept of species. Perhaps the species concept is not appropriate for these types of organisms, since many are actually both facultative SuperOrganisms (parthenogenic lineages) at the same time as behaving as species with sexual and lateral transfer of genes.

          -If the viral DNA inserted into the cell is transmitted to viable offspring, then it is functionally identical to a mutation, transcription error, SNP, etc. I see no difference since that newly introduced DNA either increases, decreases or is neutral to the individual’s “viability”.

          The reality is that we are just now learning about how genes and genetic flow in populations function in complex ecological settings. We have quite a ways to go, imo.

        2. Hi Biobob: you, of course, have many good points. In regards to HGT, I suggest you consider as well how you consider cell evolution in the light of plastids and mitochondria…red algae taxonomy is a mess…etc. etc.

          But I agree, oyu are quite right, there are all kinds of genetic issues and what is a species, if there are any, is one…

  11. 1. Didn’t you blog about research about how a colony of ants varies its rates of respiration under different conditions similar to a single organism? As you said, it’s like one multicellular organism, and I think it’s not far-fetched to say that a multicellular organism itself is a ‘superorganism’ of single cells, with each having specialized functions and being drastically modified just as ant majors are modified to mill seeds or block nest entrances. Furthermore, some cnidarians, such as Portuguese men-of-war, are on the way to being a single organism, with some specialized for floatation, others for capturing or digesting prey, a few for reproduction, etc., and so tightly bound that one group physically looks like one single organism.

    2. I think that yes, we should draw the line between the superorganism and simply a group of individuals at the worker “sterility” line. After all, in our own bodies, it is genetically disadvantageous for each cell to produce its own offspring; that’s why they all work for the few cells that are genetically identical to them that do normally produce offspring (by proxy, I think that’s what kin selection is, right?). I guess it is ok if a few illegitimate eggs are laid here and there; no system is perfect and there are always exceptions. Individuals don’t have to sterile per se, however, they just all have to be focused on the well-being of the queen, which would indirectly be in their own interests.

    And, I just realized that workers are sort of like a queen’s grown-up trophic eggs: their lives (and genetic viability) are sacrificed to nourish a few reproductives. In this case, however, it is in the workers’ evolutionary interests to be sacrificed.

    1. as to your #2, not all the individuals in an insect colony are genetically identical — this depends on how many times the queen mated, the number of queens (and their genetic relationships) and others that may lay eggs, and the mix of genetics in making haploid and diploid individuals, at least for the social hymenoptera. But I think you point to some useful avenues for thought — like a comparison with bacterial strains…

      as to your #3, I like your idea of grown-up tropic eggs, except the Queen isn’t eating the sterile workers…

  12. 1. Does it have scientific merit beyond mere analogy? …

    I can tolerate ‘superorganism’ when it is used as a metaphor, but when you start making analogies between components of an insect society and tissues of an organism I think it becomes reductio ad absurdum. Really, a queen ant is not a gonad and I can’t think of any unrisible hypotheses that thinking this way would generate.

    While useful as a metaphor, don’t forget that words can take on a life of their own. Once you commit yourself to thinking the superorganism is real, you are trapped by the constraints of the idea. I used to be a community ecologist, so I speak from bitter experience.

    2. 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?

    I can’t answer this without contradicting the logic of my answer above, but I do think your questions demonstrate how silly it would be to take ‘superorganism’ too seriously.

    3. If a superorganism is unusually big, could we call it a Ginorganism?

    Has someone already stolen superduperorganism?

    1. I don’t think the term superorganism can be correctly understood as mere analogy. Perhaps many of us just don’t like this term for what we are trying to describe/explain. However, when considering the diversity of ant societies, the diversity of genetic relationships, etc. among the ants of one colony can be quite complex. It is not simply that they are analogous to a multicellular, solitary animal. Ant colonies resolve the same fitness and survival issues in a somewhat similar and yet, in unique ways…

      1. Agree. I see nothing wrong with the co-existence of the SuperOrganism and a more complex society of individuals, or clusters of more or less related SuperOrganisms. Nature is never as simple as we would have it be, nor as simple as we often think it is.

      2. Personally, I don’t like the term ‘superorganism’ because no such thing exists – it is an entirely human construct that adds nothing but arbitrary limits and fuzzy thinking to the study of things that do exist, like ant colonies, and that need clear, testable hypotheses to understand.

        It always reminds me of an inverted, but heuristically similar model – humans as mechanised factories or robots, most hilariously portrayed in a Woody Allen movie. Less amusing was the clique that insisted insect behaviour was “robotic”. In contrast, modelling robot movement on insects, which do exist outside of our minds, has been very productive.

        I could go on, but really, once one commits oneself to an unrealistic model, the rest of their career is likely to be spent rationalising their poor choice, not trying to understand their organisms.

        1. “Personally, I don’t like the term ‘superorganism’ because no such thing exists – it is an entirely human construct that adds nothing but arbitrary limits and fuzzy thinking to the study of things that do exist ….”

          This logic could be applied to any model construct. Take, for example, the whole of taxonomy or atomic theory. No such things actually exist. Modern genetics and physics have shown us these distinctions are far more blurry and convoluted than we imagine, however, as conceptual models they still have value. All models are limited to their domain, subject to restrictions, beyond which extrapolation is dangerous. The key is knowing where those boundaries are and limiting ones hypotheses and inference to stay with those restraints.

        2. Clearly the insect societies exist and clearly there are those to which the concept of SuperOrganism applies also exist. Clearly the “individual” is not a good fit to an insect society where the SuperOrgnism IS a good fit. One can stick ones fingers in ones ears and yell “LaLaLa” but ignoring reality or what western philosophy has done with reality is not productive. All science is the process of a series of approximations of reality, with each iteration hopefully coming closer to the actuality and helping to shape our understanding.

          One need not be so wedded to a concept so that the results you fear come to pass and in any case those results may or may not logically follow.

        3. I should have read the Wikipedia link that myrmecos put in above earlier, since I see that the superorganism is now the alpha and omega of life with everything from the Biosphere to the Individual fitting the definition. I always found ‘individual’ a difficult concept, especially when working with plants and fungi, but now that I understand that they are superorganisms, all is clear.

  13. I fully support the biological concept of the superorganism. I have literally JUST been convinced of this, by the suggestion of the term Ginorganism, which I have decided is my new favourite word and must be incorporated into the English language immediately.

  14. If you think we understand what an “organism” is — then the concept of “superorganism” is not that useful.

    But I don’t think we do understand what an “organism” is — or rather, how one really works. We, as organisms of sorts, are collections of cells that share common genetic ancestry AND cells that don’t share common genetic ancestry (isn’t there a statistic that less than 1-10% of the dna we walk around with every day is actually from Homo sapiens, the rest from the many microbiotic ecosystems within and around us?) But despite these observations, we neverthless function with sometimes singular unity. How on earth does that happen? It’s here that if we use the superorganism analogy to connect something like a social insect colony to a human being (or individual ant), that we might be able to make the fundamental breakthroughs in organization and regulation that will advance our understanding of how life works. At least, that’s my $0.02.

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