(Redirected from Superorganism)

A supraorganism or superorganism (the latter is semantically incorrect[1][2]) is a group of synergetically interacting organisms.

A mound built by cathedral termites
A coral colony


In the first volume of The Principles of Sociology (1876), Herbert Spencer introduced the term super‑organic phenomena to denote "all those processes and products which imply the co-ordinated actions of many individuals", of which "the most familiar, and in some respects the most instructive, are furnished by the social insects".[3] In Chapter II, titled "A Society Is an Organism", he came to the following conclusion:

On thus seeing that an ordinary living organism may be regarded as a nation of units which live individually, and have many of them considerable degrees of independence, we shall have the less difficulty in regarding a nation of human beings as an organism.[4]

The term supraorganism was introduced by Alfred E. Emerson in 1939.[5]


The term supraorganism is used most often to describe 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. Ants are the best-known example of such a supraorganism. A supraorganism can be defined as "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective",[6] phenomena being any activity "the hive wants" such as ants collecting food and avoiding predators,[7][8] or bees choosing a new nest site.[9] Supraorganisms tend to exhibit homeostasis, power law scaling, persistent disequilibrium and emergent behaviours.[10]

The Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock,[11] and Lynn Margulis as well as the work of James Hutton (Theory of the Earth, 1788), Vladimir Vernadsky and Guy Murchie, have suggested that the biosphere itself can be considered a supraorganism, although this has been disputed.[12] This view relates to systems theory and the dynamics of a complex system.

The concept of a supraorganism raises the question of what is to be considered an individual. Toby Tyrrell's critique of the Gaia hypothesis argues that Earth's climate system does not resemble an animal's physiological system. Planetary biospheres are not tightly regulated in the same way that animal bodies are: "planets, unlike animals, are not products of evolution. Therefore we are entitled to be highly skeptical (or even outright dismissive) about whether to expect something akin to a "supraorganism"". He concludes that "the superorganism analogy is unwarranted".[13]

Some scientists have suggested that individual human beings can be thought of as "supraorganisms";[14] as a typical human digestive system contains 1013 to 1014 microorganisms whose collective genome, the microbiome studied by the Human Microbiome Project, contains at least 100 times as many genes as the human genome itself.[15][16] Salvucci wrote that supraorganism is another level of integration that it is observed in nature. These levels include the genomic, the organismal and the ecological levels. The genomic structure of organism reveals the fundamental role of integration and gene shuffling along evolution.[17]

In social theoryEdit

The nineteenth century thinker 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"[18]), 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 organism while distinguishing the ways in which society did not behave like an organism.[19] 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".[20]

The 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".[21]

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 maintained that "every organism of appreciable size is a society", which has suggested to some that the issue may be terminological.[22]

The term superorganic was adopted by the anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1917.[23] Social aspects of the supraorganism concept are analysed in Marshall (2002).[24] Finally, recent work in social psychology has offered the supraorganism metaphor as a unifying framework to understand diverse aspects of human sociality, such as religion, conformity, and social identity processes.[25]

In cyberneticsEdit

Supraorganisms are important in cybernetics, particularly biocybernetics. They are capable of the so-called "distributed intelligence", which is a system composed of individual agents that have limited intelligence and information.[26] These are able to pool resources so that they are able to complete goals that are beyond reach of the individuals on their own.[26] Existence of such behavior in organisms has many implications for military and management applications, and is being actively researched.[26]

Supraorganisms are also considered dependent upon cybernetic governance and processes.[27] This is based on the idea that a biological system - in order to be effective - needs a sub-system of cybernetic communications and control.[28] This is demonstrated in the way a mole rat colony uses functional synergy and cybernetic processes together.[29]

Joel de Rosnay also introduced a concept called "cybionte" to describe cybernetic supraorganism.[30] This notion associate supraorganism with chaos theory, multimedia technology, and other new developments.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lüttge, Ulrich (ed.); Cánovas, Francisco M. (ed.); Matyssek, Rainer (ed.). Progress in Botany 77. Springer, 2016, p. 223. “Note that etymologically, the Latin word ‘supra’ means ‘higher’ in the sense of ordination, whereas ‘super’ implies a spatial order. Thus, in contrast to the mainly used notion of ‘superorganism’, we prefer to stay with the notion of a ‘supraorganism’.”
  2. ^ Stoltman, Joseph P. (ed.) 21st Century Geography: A Reference Handbook Vols. 1 & 2, SAGE, 2012, p. 614. "Certainly, the EU has a president, a commission, a parliament, and a currency. It also is trying to create more statelike features, such as a constitution. Yet even EU supporters argue that the European project is not to make the EU a giant country. Instead, rather than being a superstate, the EU is a suprastate which is characterized by an overall structure that facilitates cooperation between member countries and enhances their strengths while not erasing national governments or national identities."
  3. ^ Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Sociology Vol. I, D. Appleton & Co., 1912, p. 4
  4. ^ Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Sociology Vol. I, D. Appleton & Co., 1912, p. 455
  5. ^ Emerson, A. E. "Social coordination and the supraorganism". The American Midland Naturalist, no. 21, 1939, pp. 182–209
  6. ^ Kelly, Kevin (1994). Out of control: the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world. Boston: Addison-Wesley. pp. 98. ISBN 978-0-201-48340-6.
  7. ^ Deneubourg JL, et al. (1989). "The Self-Organizing Exploratory Pattern of the Argentine Ant". Journal of Lnsect Behavior. 3 (2): 159–168. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/BF01417909.
  8. ^ O'Shea-Wheller TA, et al. (2015). "Differentiated Anti-Predation Responses in a Superorganism". PLOS One. 10 (11): e0141012. Bibcode:2015PLoSO..1041012O. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141012. PMC 4641648. PMID 26558385.
  9. ^ Britton NF, et al. (2002). "Deciding on a new home: how do honeybees agree?". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 269 (1498): 1383–1388. doi:10.1098/rspb.2002.2001. PMC 1691030. PMID 12079662.
  10. ^ Technium Unbound, SALT The Long Now Foundation
  11. ^ Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 1979
  12. ^ Tyrrell, Toby (2013), On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 209, ISBN 9780691121581
  13. ^ Tyrrell, Toby (2013), On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 209, ISBN 9780691121581
  14. ^ Kramer, Peter; Bressan, Paola (2015). "Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes, and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10 (4): 464–481. doi:10.1177/1745691615583131. ISSN 1745-6916. PMID 26177948.
  15. ^ Gill, S. R.; Pop, M.; Deboy, R. T.; Eckburg, P. B.; Turnbaugh, P. J.; Samuel, B. S.; Gordon, J. I.; Relman, D. A.; et al. (2 June 2006). "Metagenomic Analysis of the Human Distal Gut Microbiome". Science. 312 (5778): 1355–1359. Bibcode:2006Sci...312.1355G. doi:10.1126/science.1124234. PMC 3027896. PMID 16741115.
  16. ^ Salvucci, E. (1 May 2012). "Selfishness, warfare, and economics; or integration, cooperation, and biology". Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. 2: 54. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2012.00054. PMC 3417387. PMID 22919645.
  17. ^ Salvucci, E. (May 2016). "Microbiome, Holobiont and the net of life". Crit Rev Microbiol. 42 (3): 485–94. doi:10.3109/1040841X.2014.962478. PMID 25430522.
  18. ^ The Principles of Sociology, Vol. 1, Part 1. "The Data of Sociology", Herbert Spencer, 1876
  19. ^ The Principles of Sociology, Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter II, "A Society Is an Organism" (sections 222 and 223), Herbert Spencer, 1876
  20. ^ Holistic Thought in Social Science, D. C. Phillips, Stanford University Press, 1976, p. 123
  21. ^ Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics, Carl Menger, Louis Schneider (translator), New York University Press, 1985
  22. ^ The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Tim S. Gray, 1996, p. 211
  23. ^ Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict, Houghton Mifflin, 1934, p. 231
  24. ^ Marshall, A. (2002). The Unity of Nature Archived 2007-07-06 at the Wayback Machine, Imperial College Press, London.
  25. ^ Kesebir, Selin. The Superorganism Account of Human Sociality: How and When Human Groups are Like Beehives. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2012, 16, 233-261.
  26. ^ a b c Kelly, Kevin (1994). Out of control: the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world. Boston: Addison-Wesley. pp. 251. ISBN 978-0-201-48340-6.

    If Col. Thorpe [of the US DARPA] has his way, the four divisions of the US military and hundreds of industrial subcontractors will become a single interconnected supraorganism. The immediate step to this world of distributed intelligence is an engineering protocol developed by a consortium of defense simulation centers in Orlando Florida ...

  27. ^ François, Charles (2004). International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, Second edition. Munchen: Walter de Gruyter. p. 428. ISBN 3598116306.
  28. ^ A, Corning Peter (2017). Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution And The Rise Of Humankind. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific. p. 211. ISBN 9789813230934.
  29. ^ Corning, Peter (2010-08-15). Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0226116136.
  30. ^ Gackenbach, Jayne (2011-10-10). Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications. Amsterdam: Elsevier. p. 319. ISBN 9780123694256.


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