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).