Cat. 2, Philosophy 5 – BL-29 – The Superorganism

Cat. 2, Philosophy 5 – BL-29 – The Superorganism

Ch. 29 –  The SuperOrganism

 East Africa has not one but two rainy seasons, the “short rains” starting around November, and the “long rains” spanning March and June. There was a recent ground soaking rain. Almost overnight, the air cooled, the landscape greened, and the winged termites swarmed.

Not for the first time did I stop the jeep to admire some animal I chanced upon. This time, it was a lone cheetah. I’d stopped to admire cheetahs many times before, both in repose and in full charge, but this one was unique. Instead of being on flat ground, as the previous ones always were, she was perched on top of a ten-foot termite mound, which made immediate sense, since this would give her a broader view of her terrain. There were quite a few of these mounds nearby, ranging in stature from ankle-height buds to tree-sized giants. Hundreds dot the plain to the horizon. There was a large mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest grazing in the semi-distance, among the widely dispersed trees and these mounds. It was in the later afternoon, and the air had cooled. On the African savannah I always found myself automatically silent. This was truly the holy of holies – the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the natural world, created, so to speak, by the hands of God. And the “real” St. Peter’s Cathedral is but a relatively puny creation of man.

“Ultimately, the Universe Itself is the supreme cathedral, the Earth is one of Its innumerable chambers of worship, and life is the act of worship itself,” whispered Raminothna.

At some point, she said, as if out of the blue, “Take a time lapse movie of this plain covering a hundred years, and play it back in a hundred seconds, and what do you see?”

I looked intensely at the meadow for a full minute, during which time I did some fast thinking. Finally I said, “Yes, I see what I think you want me to see. But I don’t see what point you’re trying to make.”

“What do you see?”

“Well, first, I see the grass covering the meadow. It’s like a shimmering carpet alternating green and brown once every second.”

“Good start.”

“Next are the trees. They sprout from the ground, mushroom to full stature, then suddenly collapse, and eventually crumble to nothing, all within several dozen seconds, each in its own time. And while they live, they give off once-per-second flowering flashes.”

“Go on.”

“And the animals. They are individually invisible, because they move so superfast, but instead they form a ground-hugging probability cloud.”

“So far, so good.”

“And, yes, let’s not forget these termite mounds. They behave just like the trees. They sprout from the ground just like the trees, mushroom to full size just like the trees, then suddenly dying and eventually crumbling to nothing, just like the trees, all within several dozen seconds, just like the trees, each in its own time of course, just like the trees. And while they live, they also give off once-per-second flashes comprising the release and swarming of winged reproductive Alates from all mounds simultaneously. This is what you want me to see, isn’t it?”

“What do you make of it?”

“That a termite mound is as alive as a tree? Which makes sense, since the termites themselves are alive. Is that it? That the termite mounds are alive?”

“Yes, but not far enough.”

“I would have thought that to call a termite mound alive is already going a little too far, since only the termites are alive, but not the shell of the mound.”

“Is this like saying that calling a crab alive is going a little too far, since only its cells are alive, but not its shell?”

“But a crab is a bona fide organism – a living thing.”

“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere,”

“You’re not actually suggesting that a termite mound is a bona fide organism, singular, are you?”

“Isn’t it?”

“Well, recalling my high school biology, there is one test I learned that can answer this for certain. I can run the termite mound through the gauntlet of classical biology’s Seven Vital Functions. A candidate entity must possess all seven vital functions to qualify as a bona fide organism.”

“Go ahead.”

“Okay. The First Vital Function is Ingestion. A bona fide organism needs to ingest materials of some kind, animals ingest plants and other animals, while plants take in solar energy, water, O2, CO2 and certain minerals via the root and leaf systems. In the case of the termite mound, it does need to ingest food, which includes grass, leaves and dead wood.”

“Do the termites themselves ingest the grass, leaves and dead wood?”

“Actually, they do not.”

“What do they ingest?”

“They ingest a specific species of fungus that grows on a substrate composed of mulched grass, leaves and wood.”

“So, what exactly is the food for the termites?”

“The fungus.”

“And what is the food for the termite mound as a whole?”

“Grass, leaves and wood.”

“So what does this make of the fungus?”

“It becomes an intermediate product of the mound’s internal metabolism.”

“Go on.”

“The Second Vital Function is Excretion. The mound does discharge waste material, such as exhausted substrate, uneaten fungal parts, miscellaneous debris and dead termites.”

“And the termite’s own excreta?”

“It is used as ‘cement’ for the shell and internal partitions of the mound. So the termites’ feces is not the termite mound’s excretion but is the internal secretion of the mound, equivalent to the internal secretion of the crab which builds the shell and internal partitions of the crab.”

“Very good.”

“The Third Vital Function is Reactivity. The mound does react to external stimuli. If attacked, by ants, ant-eaters, etc., it defends itself – by means of its soldier caste. It can even counterattack if it so chooses.”

“Go on.”

“The Fourth Vital Function is Movement. Even plants move, just too slow for the human eye to see – leaves turn to face the sun, tendrils reach, vines climb. But a termite mound, in fact, has more power of movement than a tree, since it can send out its worker termites to seek and retrieve food – collectively like a tentacle.”

“Go on.”

“The Fifth Vital Function is Growth. A termite mound does grow in stature, as our time-laps ‘movie’ demonstrated, and also in its internal termite population.”

“The Sixth Vital Function is Homeostasis. The termite mound can maintain its own core temperature to within one degree year round. If heated, it cools itself – by the minor workers going down to the water table via tunnels dug by the major workers, sometimes meters down, each bringing back a droplet of water in its jaws, which they then would paste onto a partition wall, thus cooling the mound. If chilled, it warms itself by the termites clustering in the core, thus maintaining its core temperature. If disturbed, it has a tendency to return to order. And when damaged, it can heal itself.”

“The Seventh Vital Function is Reproduction. By this I do not mean the reproduction of the termites themselves, which in this context constitutes Growth. By the reproduction of the termite mounds, I mean the mounds themselves reproducing – by old mounds giving rise to new mounds.”

“And your conclusion?” asked Raminothna.

“My conclusion is that a termite mound is a bona fide organism.”

“There is even an Eighth Vital Function, if you’re interested.”

“Really? What is it?”


I pondered this.

“Yes, I can see that an organism should have the mechanism to evolve. In the case of the termite mound, not only do the termites themselves evolve, the mound itself evolves as well, in size, shape, structure, organization and dynamics.”

After a moment, I said, “I’m now more convinced than ever that a termite mound is a bona fide living organism.”

A moment more. “But now, I have a question. If the termites are organisms, should the termite mound be called a… higher organism?”

“Congratulations! The early social insect researchers called an insect society a Superorganism.”

“A Superorganism. Hmm. Very interesting.”

“It is a very important concept in understanding the Cosmos.”

“Well, yes, um, but then how come, through the years of biology, I’ve never heard of it?”

“Unfortunately, for it, it’s very name carries a fatal self-destructive flaw.”

“A ‘fatal self-destructive’ flaw?”

In the public library in Arusha, I found a large book titled [The Insect Societies] by E.O. Wilson (1971). On p. 317, in the chapter titled [The Superorganism Concept and Beyond], it said:

[The idea of homeostasis leads easily to the visualization of the entire insect colony as a kind of superorganism. In fact, the story of the superorganism concept, from its origin as a philosophical idea sixty years ago to its present sharp decline in contemporary thinking, should prove instructive to historians of science as well as to biologists with a more immediate interest in the subject. During some forty years, from 1911 to about 1950, this concept was a dominant theme in the literature on social insects. Then, at the seeming peak of its maturity it faded, and today it is seldom explicitly discussed. Its decline exemplifies the way inspirational, holistic ideas in biology often give rise to experimental, reductionist approaches that supplant them…

[… the current generation of students of social insects… saw its future in stepwise experimental work in narrowly conceived problems, and it has chosen to ignore the Superorganism concept… Seldom has so ambitious a scientific concept been so quickly and almost totally discarded.

[The superorganism concept faded not because it was wrong but because it no longer seemed relevant. It is not necessary to invoke the concept in order to commence work on animal societies. The concept offers no techniques, measurements, or even definitions by which the intricate phenomena in genetics, behaviour, and physiology can be unraveled. It is even difficult to cite examples where the conscious use of the idea led to a new discovery in animal sociology…

[… But it would be wrong to overlook the significant, albeit semiconscious, role this idea had played in the history of the subject…

[Finally, it might be asked what vision, if any, has replaced the Superorganism concept… there is no new holistic conception…]

“So, what does this leave us?” I asked Raminothna. “It seems that the door has been slammed shut on the concept since decades ago.”

“It is about to open again,” she said, which for some reason gave me goose bumps.

“It slammed shut for a reason. So is the reason gone?” I asked.

“Yes it is.”

“And what is this reason?”

“Its name.”

“‘Superorganism’? Why?”

“Tell me. If you call a society of organisms a superorganism, what would you call a society of superorganisms, if one exists?”

“A society of syperorganisms? A SUPERsuperorganism?”

“And what do you call a society of supersuperorganism, if it exists?”

“A supersupersuperorganism?” I blurted it out.

“See what I mean?”

“Yes, I do. Cumbersome, to say the least, and unsystematic.”

“So, what’s your solution?”

“Well, I would call both the termite and the termite mound ‘organisms’, but I would place them on different levels of organization, namely that of the insect, and that of the insect society.”

“Excellent! But it can be expanded to include other levels of organization.”

“Other levels?”

“If the termite mound is an organism, and a termite, which is a ‘cell’ of the mound, is an organism, then shouldn’t the body-cell of a termite also be an organism? Just one on a ‘lower’ level of organization? If so, we have to establish that the termite cell is a bona fide organism.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Some would argue that it is only a body cell of a termite, not an organism in its own right.”


“Because… it has lost its independence, for one thing.”

“Is this the only reason?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“You did say that a termite is an organism, didn’t you?” Raminothna asked.

“Yes I did.”

“Just like a grasshopper or a dragonfly is an organism?”


“Can a grasshopper. Live on its own?”

“Yes, it can.”

“Can a dragonfly live on its own?”


“Can a termite live on its own?”

I was stumped a moment. “No.”

“Has it lost its independence?”

“Yes. I see what you mean, I think.”

“What is the essential difference between a termite and a grasshopper or a dragonfly?”

“A grasshopper or a dragonfly is a NONSOCIAL METABIONT ORGANISM (‘metazoan’ means ‘multicellular animal’, and ‘metabiont’ means ‘multicellular organism’), and of course they are bona fide organisms. A termite or a bee, on the other hand, is a SOCIAL METABIONT ORGANSM, and still, we all recognize them both to be bona fide organisms. So, yes, likewise, an amoeba is a NONSOCIAL CELLULAR ORGANISM, and a dragonfly cell is a bona fide SOCIAL CELLULAR ORGANISM, both being, therefore, bona fide organisms.”

After a pause, I added, “Yes, I can see how, in the old SUPERorganism system, a termite cell would be an organism, a termite would be a superorganism and a termite mound, or should we call it a ‘termite city’, is a supersuperorganism.”

“And now?”

“Much simpler. We have three levels of organization – the Cellular, the Metabiont, and the Citian (from ‘city’) – and the cell, the metabiont and the city are organisms on the Cellular, the Metabiont and Citian levels respectively.”


“And now I see this applying to human societies as well.”


“In general, on each level of organization, there are nonsocial and social organisms.”

“Very good.”

“I can even write a simple equation to describe these levels: Society (X) = Organism (X+1), or Organism (X) = Society (X-1).”


“This is so obvious, why didn’t they see it?”

“What did Thomas Huxley say after reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species?”

“Yes, he did say, ‘This is so obvious why didn’t I think of it?’”

“A common question for brilliant minds.”



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