Margaret Atwood ponders the Superorganism

Margaret Atwood, among the most talented novelists of my lifetime, moderates a discussion on Ed Wilson’s Anthill:

Wilson draws explicit parallels between ant colonies and human civilizations.  Each arises, builds itself up, fights off competitors, flourishes, goes into decline, and eventually perishes, overwhelmed by stronger invaders.  Is this parallel fully merited?

Is there an implication that human society on earth has now become a Supercolony,  devouring everything in its path and with no check to its growth?  If so, is it in danger of eating itself out of existence?

5 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood ponders the Superorganism”

  1. I don’t think “superorganism” explicitly means a large society that leaves a swath of destruction, as Atwood implies. Of course, larger societies of social insects are pretty often superorganisms, and large societies have much less conflict, small colonies such as those of lower attines are also superorganisms as well, and they aren’t scary unless you happen to be a pellet of frass. So, that said, if Atwood includes the whole of the human species as a superorganism, I think she’s quite wrong. Human societies require a central government, unlike social insects. We aren’t really closely interrelated and also like to focus on differences rather than similarities, which causes divisions, social strife, and conflict. So I say that rather than having even one unified society or even hundreds of national societies that can be “superorganisms”, the closest analogy to that term in the highly socially flexible human species might be the nuclear family.

    1. And this is when I realize you linked to the discussion on top and I should have posted my rant there.

  2. Aren’t there ant colonies that aren’t interrelated? i.e. Argentine ants that form supercolonies?

    There are human societies that don’t have a central government too.

  3. As I read the little Ms. Atwood wrote, she is talking about supercolonies and not the superorganism. Supercolonies, in ants anyway, seem to lack the usual ability to detect closely related nestmates from non-related ones which are the offspring of a different queen (related papers: Suarez et al. 1999. Biological Invasions 1: 43 – 53 and Schmidt et al. 2010. Frontiers in Zoology 7. 20 pages, for starters). In the supercolonies, the ants may not be closely related genetically.

    Unfortunately, I see humans fitting this description more than not. There appear to be too many of us for the usual ecosystem functioning to handle and we circumvent this on a regular basis.

    1. ABM said “There appear to be too many of us for the usual ecosystem functioning to handle”

      It’s a function of the scope of the 4th dimension – time – as well as the other 3, since we have managed to aggregate all natural ecosystems into a global whole and thereby bypass local limits to gain time. Compare the likely sequence of ecological failure and collapse of the Maya with global support provided to otherwise collapsed societies like that of Haiti or that about to occur in Egypt.

      At any rate, we humans are quite adept at developing short-term solutions to immediate difficulties. There is no real indication of any limitation to the continuation of this process at this moment, but one can always be a pessimist and assume global collapse will occur REAL SOON NOW.

      Paul R Ehrlich didn’t have much luck with this meme, however; how embarrassing !

      Don’t hold your breath.

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