Has Economic Growth Transformed Us into a “Super-Organism?”

To approach all of this from a more dramatic (but nonetheless real) perspective: Economic growth may have transformed human beings into what biologists call “super-organisms.”

This may, at first, sound at bit strange, but consider, for example, parallels with the fire ant super-organism, which began with a small number of ants that arrived from South America in the 1930s and now covers most of the southern U.S. Tim Flannery, in “The Superior Civilization” (2009), explains:

The progress of ants from [a] relatively primitive state to the complexity of the most finely tuned super-organism leaves no doubt that the progress of human evolution has followed a path taken by the ants tens of millions of years earlier. Beginning as simply hunter-gatherers, some ants have learned to herd and milk bugs, just as we milk cattle and sheep…and there are even ants that have discovered agriculture… Clearly, not only did the attines [fungus-gathering ants] beat us to agriculture, but they exemplified the concept of division of labor long before Adam Smith stated it.

Flannery concludes: “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we [humans] are in the process of metamorphosing into the largest most formidable super-organism of all time.” (See also Flannery’s book Here on Earth (2011)]

The ants, from everything we know about them, are on a trajectory of which they are not aware; this trajectory, furthermore, seems to be static—they do not seem to be moving towards becoming a super, super-organism. The same, however, cannot be said about human beings.

Still, economists are now studying the behavior of ants to examine “how the seemingly random behavior of individual ants can give rise to anthills with all their pulsing purpose, form and intelligence” (Dennis Overbye, “Mystery of Big Data’s Parallel Universe Brings Fear, and a Thrill,” N.Y. Times, June 5, 2012).



Mayu says:

If ants have turned into a sort of “super-organism” through the natural course of events, did economic growth turn humans into what they are today?
As far as I can tell from the ants inhabiting the driveway to my parents’ house, they don’t seem to be engaging in any sort of trade. They may be keen hoarders, they may be farmers, and they may even be stealing food from our kitchen (there’s a line of ants coming in and out of our house), but they don’t seem to have an “economy.”
Maybe it’s natural that organisms slowly learn skills that make them better-suited to survive in their environment.
But if this is true, it’s also probably true that human beings living in the ecosystem of economic growth have also adapted in many ways to help them survive and improve our status as a super-organism. We’ve learned to have a marketable skill, we’ve learned to value money, to care about the economy, and (as I mentioned in an earlier entry,) some of us have become psychopaths (William Deresiewicz, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” N.Y. Times, May 12, 2012).


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