AskDefine | Define superorganism

Extensive Definition

A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are the most well known example of such a superorganism. The technical definition of a superorganism is "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective," phenomena being any activity "the hive wants" such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.
The Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and the work of James Hutton, Vladimir Vernadsky and Guy Murchie, have suggested that the biosphere can be considered as a superorganism. However, strict ecological studies reveal little or no self control inside organism communities, and such communities usually easily go off balance or change into entirely different ones. This view is countered and balanced by Systems Theory and the dynamics of a complex system.
Superorganisms are important in cybernetics, particularly biocybernetics. They exhibit a form of "distributed intelligence," a system in which many individual agents with limited intelligence and information are able to pool resources to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the individuals. Existence of such behavior in organisms has many implications for military and management applications, and is being actively researched.

Superorganic in social theory

Nineteenth century evolutionist Herbert Spencer coined the term super-organic to focus on social organization (the first chapter of his Principles of Sociology is entitled "Super-organic Evolution"), though this was apparently a distinction between the organic and the social, not an identity: Spencer explored the holistic nature of society as a social orgasm while distinguishing the ways in which society did not behave like an orgasm. For Spencer, the super-organic was an emergent property of interacting organisms, that is, human beings. And, as has been argued by D. C. Phillips, there is a "difference between emergence and reductionism."
Similarly, economist Carl Menger expanded upon the evolutionary nature of much social growth, but without ever abandoning methodological individualism. Many social institutions arose, Menger argued, not as "the result of socially teleological causes, but the unintended result of innumerable efforts of economic subjects pursuing 'individual' interests."
Spencer and Menger both argued that because it is individuals who choose and act, any social whole should be considered less than an organism, though Menger emphasized this more emphatically. Spencer used the organistic idea to engage in extended analysis of social structure, conceding that it was primarily an analogy. So, for Spencer, the idea of the super-organic best designated a distinct level of social reality above that of biology and psychology, and not a one-to-one identity with an organism.
Nevertheless, Spencer also argued that "every organism of appreciable size is a society," which has suggested to some that the issue may be terminological.
The term superorganic was adopted by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1917. Social aspects of the superorganism concept are analysed in Marshall (2002).

Problems and criticisms

The concept of a superorganism is in dispute, as many biologists maintain that in order for a social unit to be considered an organism by itself, the individuals should be in permanent physical connection to each other, and its evolution should be governed by selection to the whole society instead of individuals. While it's generally accepted that the society of eusocial animals is a unit of natural selection to at least some extent, most evolutionary scientists believe that the individuals are still the primary units of selection.
The question remains "What is to be considered the individual?". Some Darwinians like Richard Dawkins suggest that the individual selected is the selfish gene. Others believe it is the whole genome of an organism. E.O. Wilson has shown that with ant-colonies and other social insects it is the breeding entity of the colony that is selected, and not its individual members. This could apply to the bacterial members of a stromatolite, which, because of genetic sharing, in some way comprise a single gene pool. Gaian theorists like Lynn Margulis would argue this applies equally to the symbiogenesis of the bacterial underpinnings of the whole of the Earth.
It would appear, from computer simulations like Daisyworld that biological selection occurs at multiple levels simultaneously.
Some scientists have suggested that individual human beings can be thought of as "superorganisms"; as a typical human digestive system contains 1013 to 1014 microorganisms whose collective genome ("microbiome") contains at least 100 times as many genes as our own (see also Human microbiome project).
Timothy Leary suggested that there is really only one organism on Earth: the DNA. He described all species and physically independent lifeforms as limbs of this organism, and their ultimate purpose as growth beyond the planet. He also claimed that DNA had previously grown to settle on Earth, not originated here (see panspermia).
superorganism in German: Superorganismus
superorganism in Spanish: Superorganismo
superorganism in Hungarian: Szuperorganizmus
superorganism in Japanese: 超個体
superorganism in Swedish: Superorganism
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