Let us try to understand the concept of the superorganism. First, it is a specific biological organization above the level of individual organisms. Although the term superorganism has a venerable pedigree, it became a pariah among biologists during the middle years of the XX-century and was widely criticized as an inappropriate metaphor. However, this “head-in-the-bag denial” of larger-scale functional organization was ultimately unsustainable. Not only do super-organisms represent an important aspect of the evolutionary process, but they have had and still have an important role to play in the ongoing evolution of human society.
The organismic analogy can be traced back to the roots of Western social theory. According to Plato, the “political body” is distinct from a herd in that it is functionally organized to provide for the collective needs and wants of the citizenry. In a much-quoted passage, Plato declared: “We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully, easily and of better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it in the right way, and leaves other things”. As Plato well understood, the trade-off for these benefits was mutual-dependency much like the parts of a body. As Plato stressed, the political body involves functional interdependence. Marsilio of Padua called the state a “living being”. The functional analogy is one of the most profound insights in western political thought.
James Lovelock, author of the insightful Gaia Theory, identifies James Hutton, the father of geology, as the first modern scientist to use the term superorganism, in 1788. Hutton wrote, “I consider the Earth to be a super-organism and its proper study should be by physiology”. Herbert Spencer, in his massive The Principles of Sociology, popularized the term and applied it to social organization. Another effort to revive the superorganism concept occurred in 1989, when group selection advocate David Sloan Wilson published an article on “Reviving the Superorganism”. Wilson employed Spencer’s definition, asserting that “The hallmark of an organism is its functional organization. We define a super-organism as a collection of individuals that together possess the functional organization implicit in the formal definition of an organism”. “Super-organisms exist when there is functional interdependence, hence unity. A super-organism responds adaptively as one, as an individual entity to the environment”. Robin Moritz published Bees as Superorganisms: An Evolutionary Reality. A pertinent criteria for super-organism status is the ability to maintain its homeostasis. In the end only one feature really counts: “It makes absolutely no sense invoking such a term, if natural selection does not act upon the superorganism itself. In insect societies, selection on the colony level seems to override selection at the individual level. A super-organism exists when the whole is a unit of selection”. The same for humans: selection acts upon human groups rather than individuals.
The superorganism, as a new holarchic level of integration/organization, has its own goal-related activities. As any living system, they aim to maintain their homeostasis. A lichen is a super-organism, an ant-hill is obviously a super-organism. Gaia is a super-organism. A close-knit human group is a super-organism. All these super-organisms have their own goals and goal-related activities.
Super-organisms are able to do what individual organisms cannot. When humans manage to organize themselves in holarchic ways, their organization becomes a super-organism, with its own life. “Teal Organizations are seen as having a life and a sense of direction of their own. Instead of trying to predict and control the future, members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.” (Frederic Laloux)
Could the holarchic human organization be the next step further in the human evolutionary journey? Could a human society achieve high levels of fairness and coherence? Could this biological evolution be the solution to overcome our social and ecological crisis? The answer is a sounding yes, because selection favors only the traits that are conducive both to individual and its group/environment well-being.