Is Nature Fascist? How Society Trumps The Individual In The SuperOrganism

superorganism

Would you give up your wings for the greater good of the species?

According to Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson in their book, Superorganism, most Ants (which belong to the same order as Wasps and Bees) gave up their wings far back in evolutionary history to specialize as Worker Ants.  The best guess of scientists as to why this occurred is that the absence of wings makes it easier for the Workers to travel through the leaf litter of the forest and to go beneath the soil’s surface.  Apparently, the genes for wings are still present in the Ant genome, but the gene expression regime of the Worker Ants has altered over the millennia, with the result that the genes for wings have been “turned off.”

On the other hand, the reproductive Ants (the Queen and her mating Drones) get to keep their wings… for a while.  But this comes at a high price…

A Queen Ant develops wings to be used only during mating, and then the wings are forever cast off.  After one frolicking flight, during which she will mate in the air with several winged Drones, the Queen will then descend into the sunless domains of the ant nest, where she will stay, day-in and day-out, for the remaining ten-plus years of her life, barely moving from the spot she has chosen inside her evolutionarily preordained dungeon.  There, she will lay 20 eggs a minute, or over 28,000 eggs a day –every day– for the duration of her (relatively) long, factory-like life.

Meanwhile, the Drones, who were hatched and maintained by the womenfolk of the Ant colony for one and only one purpose—mating with the Queen—are killed or expelled from the nest as soon as mating season is over.  Except for the next batch of gigolo Drones, all the remaining Ants (the Workers and the Queen) are female.

Reading about the Ants put me in my mind of one of the failings of evolutionary theory; namely, the theory’s focus on the individual.  With “survival of the fittest” at its core, evolutionary theory tends to skew our view of the biological toward individual biography and away from bio-social history.

You know how the evolution narrative goes:  If an individual is stronger, faster, or smarter than other individuals, his chances of surviving and reproducing are relatively higher than that of his mates, and his genes are the ones most likely to be passed on, the others falling into the oblivion of also-rans.

What is undervalued with this slanted approach to evolution is teamwork.  The intra-group competition of individuals is far from the only evolutionary pressure applied to Life.  There are also rivalries with other groups and other species.  Often, it is not so much a matter of survival of the fittest individual as survival of the fittest clan.

The argument has even been made, evolution or no, that the individual organism is actually quite unimportant.

It has long been known that Nature cares little for this or that particular organism.  The individual may inhale the wrong virus and sicken and die; or he may stumble in the stampede and be snatched by the jaws of a chasing predator; or he may have his neck broken after slipping on a bar of soap in the tub.  And Nature won’t blink.  The ecosystem doesn’t even notice he’s gone.  No fiery comet in the sky signals his demise.  No raindrops cry down from the sky.  No thundering funeral oration sounds, no obituary is written upon the waves.

Only when an entire species begins to slip so far off course that its environmental niche is not properly occupied does Nature take notice.  As Schopenhauer noted, the World assures us at every turn that, in spite of what we may wish to believe, the individual counts for nothing.  Witness, says Schopenhauer, how Nature abandons without reserve the single organism –constructed with such inexpressible skill– to death at the blindest chance or the most mundane accident.

Most of the world’s organisms have no more self-awareness than the cells that make-up their bodies.  They carry on their Nature-assigned tasks, slaves to genes and hormones, feeding and procreating, until the exquisite machines that are their bodies shut down permanently, unaware of death in life, or life in death.

In this way, Nature is the ultimate Fascist:  the individual is not here for himself, but for the greater good of the society.  The individual works, eats, sleeps, and has sex for one purpose:  the continuation of the species.  Each of us is exactly what Kant claims we are not:  tools–  no more than a means to an end, that end being the non-end of the species.

This is the dark side of the theme of Holldobbler and Wilson’s book.  For them – the ant colony, the wasp nest, the bee hive— they each form a sort of animal of themselves, the so-called “superorganism.”  In the superorganism, the individual in a colony is akin to a single cell in an organism.  As the purpose for the cell is to help maintain the individual, the purpose of the individual is to help maintain the colony (which, I add, in turn maintains the species).

I suppose the purpose for the maintenance of the species is the perpetuation of Life On Earth.  But what the purpose is for Life On Earth, perhaps no one will ever be able to say.  But as Aristotle pointed out about Humankind— it seems silly to think a machine comprised of purposeful components would, itself, have no purpose.

Or perhaps, it’s like Schopenhauer said:  At bottom, we, the living, are something that ought not be, and Death is the great reprimand; “Death is the violent untying of the knot.”

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