[Note: This is an updated and lightly edited version of an essay that I wrote in 2017. I still believe most of what is written here, but my confidence levels have changed, and if I were to write on this topic again, I would emphasize different aspects of the ideas.]
I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together. – John Lennon
In recent years, I have seen an increased awareness that humans are social animals. Deprive a person of human contact, and you’ll cause them a host of psychological and physical problems that can last a lifetime. But I haven’t seen many people take this idea to its natural conclusion. The focus on what social deprivation does to the individual is short-sighted. As social animals, we must have an evolved social super-structure. Human society is not merely a collection of individuals; we are a superorganism: a single lifeform made up of much smaller individuals who interact in complex and surprising ways. In any attempt to understand the issues that humanity as a whole faces, we must step away from the individualist framework and instead adopt the superorganism framework. Just as medicine works better when viewing a body as a whole rather than a collection collection of cells, any attempt to address wide-spread social issues should consider human society as a single, integrated whole. Issues like environmental degradation, mass anger and hatred, and unchecked economic growth are not just the effects of the conglomerate actions of billions of human individuals, they are the symptoms of superorganismic social structure that is integrating information in dangerous and harmful ways.
My goal with this essay is to convince you that a conception of societal ailments as superorganism illness is both meaningful and true. For the former: This framework offers very different solutions for social ailments than most other frameworks. Because humans are nodes in a system in many ways analogous to a neural network, changes to the ways we interact with our friends, acquaintances, and strangers can have significant and surprising consequences. In some sense, this essay boils down to “Being nice is Good—Good in ways that reach far beyond what most ever imagine.”
For the latter: The animal kingdom is full of cases where group behavior is fundamentally different from individual behavior. “Emergence” is a key concept in biology that can be summarized by the adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” An organ is more than the sum of its cells. An organism is more than the sum of its organs. And a superorganism is more than the sum of the individual organisms that comprise it. In fact, the line between an organism and a superorganism is blurred. An individual human – typically considered an organism – can be viewed as the result of the interaction of many cells with their own behaviors and “desires.” Even an individual human cell can be viewed through endosymbiosis as the interaction between even smaller cells contained within the cell environment.
These comparisons between life at different sizes are more than a silly abstraction. Recognition of the fractal nature of lifeforms allows us to expand organism-level understanding to larger and smaller systems. Evolutionary processes act on all levels, and through superorganism evolution, animals can evolve seemingly strange behaviors that only make sense as part of a larger whole. The human superorganism has its own emergent behaviors and desires that will not be obvious if we view humanity as a collection of individuals.
I. Individual and collective cognition
What I want to focus on in the human superorganism is collective consciousness and emergent cognition. To be clear, I’m not talking about ESP or psychic abilities. Group level cognition is a serious and well substantiated theory in behavioral biology. How do groups of organisms make decisions?
The simplest form of group cognition is integration through polling. This type of cognition can can improve accuracy as random noise is canceled out, but this sort of integration is not truly emergent—all ideas still stem from individuals and the integration cannot fix individual fallacious reasoning: When wrongness is systematically biased, polling cannot prevent it. Nevertheless there are plenty of instances where group cognition is truly emergent – that is fundamentally different from the cognition of an individual. This emergence is crucial for understanding, for example, how environmentally destructive group behavior arises from people who do not want rising sea levels or severe weather.
A simple example of emergent cognition is the rational behavior of ant colonies. Individual ants – and individual humans – are susceptible to violations of the regularity principle. The regularity principle of rational decision-making states essentially that preferences should be consistent. If A is preferred to B, when presented with options A and B, then A should be preferred to B when presented with options A, B, and C. Fallacious violations of the regularity principle are extremely common in organism-level cognition, and are perhaps best illustrated by the way that salesmen take advantage of them, as described by Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational. Ariely conducted an informal experiment on his students to demonstrate the use of a “decoy” to change economic decision making. The Economist offers three choices for subscriptions: “Internet-only subscription for $59,” “Print-only subscription for $125” and “Print-and-Internet subscription for $125.” When presented with these three options, most students chose the third, because of its obvious superiority compared to the second “decoy option.” However, in another class, when Ariely removed the decoy option and offered only “Internet-only subscription for $59,” and “Print-and-Internet subscription for $125,” the majority selected the first option.
Polling cannot fix this fallacy: because the fallacious reasoning is enough to influence majority opinion, the polled group understanding changed with the decoy. New forms of information integration, on the other hand, can create new cognitive processes that avoid this fallacy. Although individual ants can fall for decoys, ant colonies as a whole are not susceptible to violation of the regularity principle. Instead of having individual ants assess all three options, each ant assesses only one, and the structure of the colony works to process the collective opinion.
Cognition, collective or otherwise, is fundamentally a process of integrating information. A human, an ant, or a neuron has an experience and transmits its experience to others. These others in turn transmit information, and through these transmissions, the experience combines with other experiences and decisions are made. When considering any question about society as a whole, we have to consider the question of how relevant information gets integrated by the human network. In the case of climate change, how does environmental science travel through the network? In the case of misogyny, how do ideas about dating norms transmit through the network?
Unfortunately, these are not easy questions. Group cognition phenomena can get far more impressive and complex than the simple ant example, and as they increase in complexity, they become increasingly difficult to understand mechanistically. Much like we do not understand how thoughts emerge from networks of neurons, we also do not understand exactly how individuals combine to create group level behavior. Still, the question is not entirely intractable. Both neural processes and collective cognition fall under the umbrella term “swarm intelligence” and can be studied by an expansion of the principles of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. The force laws between individual atoms and molecules can result in complex and predictable macroscopic phases of matter. Similarly, the rules governing individual neuronal or organismic behavior can combine to create macroscopic or megascopic cognition. Some sort of understanding of cognition can be drawn from the lower-level rules governing neurons, even if the intermediate steps are complex and mysterious. To understand human society, we must begin by examining the rules for individual behavior.
Academics have noted a number of similarities between neurons and social animals. Both brains and superorganisms involve a complex and adaptable communication network. In brains, the network itself is highly complex but it is comprised of very simple components. For superorganisms, the network is formed by the connections between much more complex individuals. In ants, this network is necessarily simple. Although, ants may recognize their own individuality, they probably cannot recognize their peers as distinct from each other. The communication connections for ants are therefore based on proximity and the network is shaped by the spatial distribution of the ant colony. Humans are more complex than ants, and our networks therefore can be more complex and are more analogous to neural networks. Tribal structures reflect the clustering of neurons in the brain, such that the cognitive system consists of many smaller communication circuits along with a network of farther reaching nodes that connect them. Extrapolating from primate trends, humans evolved to be connected on an individual level with about 150 people. The potential for complex group communication networks is therefore very high, and the potential for complex group cognition is as a result also high.
Even the nature of the communication within brains and among social animals is analogous. Each point in the communication network provides either positive or negative feedback, such that some signals amplify and others die out. The exact nature of these positive and negative feedbacks is also fairly similar. Each communication node has some particular received signal threshold at which it will begin signaling. These signals are continually spreading and cycling, and as neurons or animals receive certain types of signals, they change their connections and their signal thresholds, such that the brain, or the superorganism can change permanently and learn .
Of course, social networks and neuronal networks are far from perfectly analogous. One important distinction between brains and superbrains is the nature of the signals. Neuronal signals are incredibly simple, consisting essentially of a flow of chemicals down a tube. A pain signal is transferred to the brain, where the pain is integrated with other simple inputs to create a complex situational picture, and ultimately to cause decision-making. Human signals take the form of ideas. Human experience is transferred through language along super-neuronal pathways, and the communication structure serves to transform experiences into ideology, and ideology into action.
All of this is not to say that the human superorganism has thoughts or experiences in the traditional sense. The superbrain may not be structured correctly for such things; and the complex, less predictable nature of humans compared to neurons makes the network less clean, and therefore, potentially, not precise enough for real thought. However, decisions and desires often do not stem from thoughts. Instead thoughts are often secondary rationalizations of decisions and emotions that are made at a “lower,” less conscious level (see Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). The human superbrain may or may not think in the traditional sense, but it does make decisions and have desires, and like a neural brain, those decisions and desires can have little to do with the “desires” of the individual neurons. The human superorganism has its own mind with its own consciousness in a way not too different from each of us.
II. Case study: Environmental degradation and climate change
One function of brains in organisms and collective cognition in superorganisms is the maintenance of homeostasis – that is, maintaining a constant and hospitable environment and keeping the lifeform running on a basic level. These functions include keeping chemical energy (food) available, staying at the correct temperature, and keeping the concentration of carbon dioxide at a reasonable level.
Environmental issues are essentially a failure by the human superorganism to maintain homeostasis. A healthy superbrain should keep population growth in check, preserve the local ecosystem, and amplify the voices of individuals who have a good understanding of the more complex issues facing the society. Instead, the human superorganism is growing uncontrollably, pursuing environmentally destructive pleasures, and ignoring the alarm calls of some of its more knowledgeable members. In some sense, the human superorganism is mentally ill and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
Superorganism level diseases are not a new idea, and generally result from a failure in collective cognition. Organisms and superorganisms both evolve such that the tendencies of the individual neural nodes are conducive to healthy cognition and decision making. However, sometimes these natural processes can be changed or coopted by maladaptive behavior, leading to mental illness in organisms, or colony disorders in superorganisms.
In superorganisms, a crucial part of homeostasis maintenance is the division of labor. Essentially, labor specialization is analogous to cell differentiation, so in superorganisms, since individuals can switch jobs, “cell differentiation” becomes a tool to employ to maintain a balanced environment. In ants “colony-level division of labor can result from single insects with different task thresholds.” The communication network between ants passes information about what the colony needs throughout the nest, and individuals respond based essentially on individual preferences. This form of collective cognition bears uncanny similarity to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. The natural functioning of economics depends on having a mixture of individuals with different utilities and skills. This healthy balance of individuals is not emergent solely from economic forces, it is the result of tens of millions of years of evolutionary social engineering.
Anthropogenic climate change is in some sense a market failure. Unnecessary consumption drives increased use of fossil fuels. Many have argued that capitalism caused the Anthropocene (or the new geological era defined by globally recognizable human impact), and in some sense I agree. This explanation, however, is insufficient: Markets are natural and humans have evolved with checks and balances on the collective cognition processes. Self-organization into groups with governments is meant to amplify the voices of individual brains, in order to actively keep the market forces of the superbrain in check. These governments are failing to do their job. Even in nations with large and active governments or state-run economies, greenhouse gas emissions can be high.
The Anthropocene is therefore a simultaneous failure of market forces and voice amplification, and therefore it must stem from changes in economic decision making and social connection at the individual level. From these changes emerge a mentally ill and self-destructive superbrain.
III. Neuronal changes: Social bonding and consumption
Increased consumption and problems with social bonding are probably closely causally linked. An inadequacy of social bonds can cause consumerism. Without social opportunities, mammals turn to other options, desperately trying to fill the hole left by a lack of community.
The most marked example of this is drug addiction. Famous experiments on rats offer a bleak view of mammalian self-control surrounding certain forms of consumption. Rats are willing to press a lever to self-administer cocaine or opium, even over food consumption, until either the drug or the starvation kills them. These experiments however, are deeply flawed. Rats are social creatures, and these experiments tend to be conducted on rats who are isolated. An alternative experiment, commonly termed “Rat Park,” kept rats in colonies where they could play, cuddle and have sex with other rats. Rats who lived in Rat Park had drastically lower rates of drug use.
Rat Park and similar experiments led to the theory of addictive behavior as a maladaptive attempt at bonding. Without social connection, mammals will attempt to bond with something else. The object of bonding can be drugs, or any other pleasurable activity. For humans, a lack of bonds can lead to consumerism.
It is difficult to empirically test this mechanism, but one thing is clear: lack of social bonding can cause huge behavioral changes in humans. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays a central role in human social interaction. It is released during sex, cuddling, and other intimate interaction. Dysfunction (caused by lack of human contact) in the oxytocin system is linked to both addiction and antisocial behavior. In other words, insufficient cuddling can lead to destructive economic desires and changed social connections.
A lack of bonds can cause consumerism, but it is not easy to definitively show that such a lack exists. Society-wide failure to make sufficient human connections is more difficult to detect than increased consumption. A good proxy for this issue is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the disorder often linked to high functioning psychopathy. The symptoms of the disorder include exploitation of others for personal gain, an unwillingness to empathize with the feelings or desires of other people, and a sense of entitlement (DSM-5, 2013).
I want to emphasize here that I am looking at rates of NPD not because I think that the few individuals who are diagnosable for this disorder are causing the rest of society to suffer inordinately. These individuals suffer themselves from guilt and social isolation, but do not necessarily have a negative impact on the world at large. In fact, some individuals with psychopathic traits may play an important role in a healthily functioning society – those individuals are better at making utilitarian ethical decisions, and a healthy superorganism would allocate certain kinds of tasks to them accordingly. Rather, I am assuming that an increased rate of NPD is indicative of increased rates of more exploitative and less friendly social behavior across the board. Rates of NPD range from 0% to 6% across communities, with far lower rates in more traditional communities. Modern society is socially cold and self-centered.
In hunter-gatherer societies where rates of NPD are low, as well as in other primates, babies maintain skin to skin contact with their mothers 50-90 percent of the time. In the United States, that number is only 16 percent. Skin to skin contact and affection are incredibly important for primates. Baby rhesus monkeys, given the choice between a terry cloth doll mother without food or a wire mesh doll mother with food, will rush their eating so that they return to the softer, more apparently affectionate doll. These doll mothers are not enough though. 75% of female rhesus monkeys raised this way ended up being abusive mothers themselves.
In humans, parental neglect or inconsistency is linked with NPD. Narcissism then is self-perpetuating, as childhood loneliness leads to adult parental neglect. Less human contact as a child is linked with dysfunction in the oxytocin system, and higher risk for drug addiction. However, childhood is not the end-all-be-all for either of these conditions. A healthy social environment can lead to less addictive behavior, and less narcissitic tendencies. In essence, the neuronal-level changes in the superorganism, are caused by both childhood and adult loneliness.
And indeed, modern society is incredibly lonely. We may not notice this loneliness most of the time, since it is so integrated into our lives, but the loneliness becomes apparent when looking at community response to stress and war. People miss war, in spite of the extreme trauma involved. There is nowhere in our society where people can get the same degree of social connection as with their fellow soldiers. Veterans suffer from increasing rates of depression, and even for civilians war can be positive. After the bombings in London during World War II, many said that they missed the community created by air-aid shelters. These sentiments about war are in stark contrast this with more communal, less socially stratified societies, where returning from war is relatively easy.
IV. The slow spread of loneliness
The Anthropocene then is a superorganism illness, caused by pathological consumption and social connections in individual humans. These pathologies are caused by loneliness. Where, then, does the loneliness come from?
In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins describes memes, and the idea that thoughts as they spread through society are subject to the same pressures as genes in biological evolution. This idea led to the now common analogy of ideas as viruses. Ideas are contagious. An idea infects a person’s mind, and causes their mind to eject more of the idea, and more minds become infected.
Loneliness is contagious, but it is not quite a thought virus. A better analogy is prion disease within the superorganism. Prions are sometimes called “atypical slow viruses” because of the way they spread slowly through an organism before causing symptoms. It can take years from initial infection for the disease to develop.
Prions are not conventional viruses. Conventional viruses are balls of RNA and protein that infect cells, and turn those cells into factories to make more virus. Prions are a contagious protein problem. When certain proteins in the body fold incorrectly, they can cause other proteins to fold incorrectly as well. Cell by cell, the new folding is slowly passed along, subtly changing cell behavior.
Loneliness wants to spread itself, and it spreads more easily than social connectedness. Associated emotional states, like shyness, hostility and anxiety are passed from person to person within a community through facial expressions and body language. Once a community becomes sufficiently lonely, rates of narcissism skyrocket. Fantasies of power and success, hallmarks of NPD, permeate the community, leading to new sorts of amplification and group behavior.
This spread of loneliness leads to the Narcissistic community. The individuals in this community are not “bad.” As mentioned previously, Narcissism in a few individuals can be healthy for a community. It is the combination of individuals that is a problem. With high rates of Narcissism, certain traits play off each other and create a group pathology.
As loneliness increases, new types of rhetoric become more successful. Self-interest and a belief in tribal superiority lead to the expansion of Narcissistic communities. Nazi Germany, under claims of Aryan supremacy blazed its way through Europe. Great Britain (and England in particular) has used rhetoric surrounding modernity and civilization to justify its push for a more gradual and world-wide adoption of its culture of individualism and sex-negativity. Sex-negativity and individualism in turn drive loneliness and Narcissism.
Loneliness is widespread in modern American culture. Social media allows people to talk without connecting. Face to face interaction and skin to skin contact are essential for the neurological effects of social interaction to take place. On a more familial connection level, healthy adult connection is rendered almost impossible by standards of monogamy, the nuclear family, and other aspects of American culture. Other primates and humans in more traditional cultures do not sleep alone, or even alone with a single partner. Furthermore, American culture is so connection-negative that modern English profanity often centers on activities and body parts that are used by adult primates to express affection and community sentiments. Primatologists estimate that in the recent evolutionary past, humans were generally each close to five other people. On average, the American adult today has only two close friends.
Today, Narcissistic rhetoric pervades American politics. Donald Trump has been noted repeatedly for his Narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. His voice is amplified through the lonely people’s maladaptive attempts at achieving connection. Phrases like “so much money” and “you’ll win so much you’ll get sick of winning” push those consumption buttons. Indeed, Donald Trump is particularly popular among some of the loneliest internet communities.
The social structure that amplifies narcissistic traits makes it nigh impossible to keep consumption in check. Narcissistic individuals engage in rationalization to justify their self-serving antisocial behavior (DSM-5, 2013). In standard narcissistic fashion, modern political leaders magnify tiny scientific doubts within climate science to postpone environmental protection and protect their own interests and standards of living, at a cost to less powerful individuals and the future of humanity as a whole.
V. What now?
Prions generally have no effect until they reach the brain, and cause erratic behavior, madness and debilitation. In the case of the loneliness prion, the early stages can even look positive, as economic growth gets conflated with happiness, and societal expansion is perceived as healthy flourishing. This apparent health, however, cannot last. In a list of three “Key Points” on prion diseases, the Hopkins Medicine Health Library (2017) ended with the cheery statement “Prion diseases are always fatal.”
For the human superorganism, there is still hope. A prion disease may always be fatal for an organism, but superorganisms are far more flexible and adaptable. If we want human society to be better, we have to work on curing this super-organism prion disease. Science alone cannot offer a solution to problems like climate change. I do not want to downplay the importance of science in a healthy human superorganism – human understanding is crucial for the ability to make healthy societal decisions – but our society already has a large scientific community. The right voices are already out there, they just aren’t being amplified. So, what can we do as individuals to help solve the problem? We need to be kind to each other, and trust that the emergent cognitive network will transform that kindness into something revolutionary. Let’s start by hugging each other more often. Hugs may or may not cure the prion disease, but if the hug solution fails, and society collapses, at least we can experience the apocalypse together.