The Human Superorganism

14 minute read

“And behold / The blue planet steeped in its dream / Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with the only love”

These are words you may never have heard. I’m going to let you go back and read them again. 

Done it? Great. And here, now, are a few others:

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold”

So what do these deeply felt lines have to do with each other? Take another glance at the image you see above. You may be more apt to recognize it than the poetic emotion it evoked.

This is Earthrise. Snapped via a Hasselblad film camera from the lunar module of a small ship cresting the moon’s horizon, it is possibly one of the most influential photographs of all time. 

Just imagine: You’re one of the first three humans to ever shake the clasp of Earth’s low orbit; the first to reach our celestial sister; and the first to orbit its cratered body, round its final bend, and view the Earth in its entirety—rising from the infinite black as if tearing the skin of a cosmic ocean. 

Poets James Dickey and Archibald MacLeish may have waxed most eloquent, with their respective reflections on the deeper meaning of the Apollo 8 mission—but most everyone who sees astronaut Bill Anders’ revelatory photo probably feels a similar tug of, well… something. Something hard to put a finger on. Something different for every person. But above all, perhaps none can avoid some fundamental sense of smallness. Everything you know, everything you love; every Earth-being to exist, the past and future of a planet and her inhabitants, all captured in a single *click* of a frame. 

This is an incredibly hard thing to internalize… and thus, it may be easy to take the extreme. But nestled on a pinprick in the eternity of space, it may be easy to think that what little we humans do during our brief lifetimes can’t possibly have much of a long-term impact. It’s mind-bendingly inspiring, yes, to reconcile the fragile nature of existence, but maybe a bit mind-numbing, too. 

And that’s the dangerous part. Because what the Apollo crewmen likely weren’t considering, when their immortal image was fused to film roll and they addressed the world on Christmas Eve of 1968, was how outsized the impact of humanity truly was on that “good Earth”—and how that impact would continue to an ever-increasing extent, long past their return.

The actual “Blue Marble”title of photo taken by Apollo 17 in 1972

They—and by extension, millions—marveled at a slice of blue-white marble teeming with life: countless beings, complex ecosystems, expansive biomes. But they missed something. What they didn’t see was an organism, a single one, flailing its arms and legs across its Mother Terra. A superorganism, of sorts. 

In their cosmic quest on behalf of humanity, they missed us. 

Homo sapiens. If you’ve been reading along with our article library, you’ll know that much of our content deals in differing degrees with this one species. Our underlying evolutionary behaviors; our intimate reliance on Earth’s web of life; the progression of human culture, power, and exploitation; even, of course, our causing of a new geological epoch, and its wide-ranging implications. 

So yes, humans constitute a core puzzle piece of Overstory Alliance’s mission to dismantle destructive systems, reseed connection with the living world, and defend the future of all life. But here, we’re going to present humanity in a different light. Just as the Apollo crew were able to take the 240,000-mile view of our home planet, we’ll be discussing our own wide-angle perspective on aggregate human activity and behavior.

Enter: the “human superorganism.” 

Out of Many, One

Here’s a short thought experiment: picture, for a second, that each of us lived out our lives in isolation. Or relative isolation, at least—like a mountain lion. In this world, we’d be a solitary species, billions of pinballs bouncing around in perpetuity, staking small claims on territory and making only rare contact with others for the barest needs: food, water, shelter, reproduction. We’d live—quietly, individually—and we’d die.

Find this impossible to imagine? Well, of course it is. From the earliest stages of our evolution, humans have been highly social beings. Existing in isolation goes entirely against our nature. As a result, not only would it be biophysically impossible to support billions of solitary individuals, but culturally impossible, too. We rely on each other to a high degree, and for many thousands of years, humans self-organized in the manner most convenient to this: small tribes.

But then, a light bulb went off, someone threw some seeds in the ground, and the rest is history. Just kidding, just kidding; we’re exaggerating here. But still: agriculture, baby! Woot woot! For better or for worse, this revolution changed the game. If tribal and hunter-gatherer peoples acted largely as autonomous bands operating fiercely egalitarian lifestyles, then early agricultural society acted much more like hives of interconnected, specialized networks. In essence, hierarchy and class were born. 

This may not seem earth-shattering at first glance. I mean, what does it really matter how our long-ago ancestors lived? In fact, quite a lot; as this marks humanity’s first leap towards a fundamentally different type of organization: eusociality.

Though most commonly associated with colonial species such as ants and bees, eusocial behavior is highly applicable to humanity as well—specifically in regards to our aggregate behavior. As the agricultural revolution snowballed, and many previously hunter-gatherer bands transformed into organized, hierarchical, highly inter-reliant societies, larger and larger “tribes” would be formed. Through this, the individual—or the small collection of individuals—quickly became secondary to the wider society.

And this is what we mean by the term “superorganism.”

Our reshaping into ever-larger and more complex entities—villages, cities, states, nations—is somewhat the story of human history, itself. For thousands of years now, our dominant growth culture given rise by early agricultural surplus has acted not unlike bacteria in a petri dish: consuming and consuming, growing and growing through simple, tropic behaviors.

Though our numbers climb, our collective behavior is no different than that of a single organism composed of billions, lumbering ahead with no real way of controlling its individual cells. Yes, it’s true: within this aggregate sphere is incredible complexity—as individual beings, as small groups, and other collaborative bodies—and as we’ll discuss, the ability to effectively steer near- and long-term events rests in these more micro levels. However, truly redirecting our collective course has proven difficult. Myriads of innovations and developments have been made by humans across the centuries, many attempting to slow our unsustainable acceleration. But thus far, dominant culture as a whole has not deviated from the trends charted by this eusocial transition. Thus far, the superorganism has grown relatively unabated—subsuming most anything in its path.

Or another way to think about this process:

Out of all our diversity, a certain homogeneity. 

Out of many, one.

Evolution of the Superorganism

But the nature of aggregate human culture—how we act, and how this phenomenon manifests—is not at all one-dimensional. The dawn of agriculture-based class society sowed the seeds for the exponential growth of the 12,000+ years to follow. However, other factors would also kick into high gear, pushing along the superorganism’s development.

We’ve discussed elsewhere how our collective behavior can be largely boiled down to that of an energy-seeking heat engine. All living beings, really, hold these characteristics in a basic sense: biological systems which convert solar energy into metabolic energy, and discharge leftover heat and waste products. But the cultural juggernaut of eusociality stoked the human engine in an unprecedented manner. As agricultural class society became very quickly successful at generating surplus—which allowed for the allocation of labor / goods and relative ease of living nomadic lifestyles could not—a certain penchant for growth seemed to take hold.

This perhaps makes intuitive sense. Growing food, and growing physical wealth, just felt good. Already, the social roots of exponential growth had taken hold via the eusocial transition; we now see a number of cognitive roots revved up by the rapid success that followed.

Think about it: then as now, we possess just about the same cornucopia of evolved behaviors and beliefs as our earliest ancestors. Tribal behavior didn’t simply go away upon our reorganization into cities, states, and nations. So you’d better believe that as the size and complexity of the superorganism grew, prioritizing the “good of the tribe” didn’t diminish. But these weren’t the small, autonomous groups of old. Fierce competition between groups—be they empires, kingdoms, or simply communities—favored those harnessing the greatest proportion of photosynthetic productivity. And so, this “good of the tribe” primarily manifested in proliferating resource consumption, land conversion, and built infrastructure in the name of one’s in-group.

No matter its effects on individuals, rapidly producing, consuming, and growing fed the “good” of the whole—the superorganism, itself. And so over thousands of years, wresting tighter control over natural flows in the living world allowed for slow, but steady growth of the human enterprise.

But then—all of a sudden—we seemingly hit the jackpot.

Throttling the Engine

Early class societies could only grow so much via natural “flows” in the living world—the trees, water, soil, flesh and rudimentary energy sources used in similar fashions since the dawn of agriculture. The human heat engine had grown weary of these same old inputs; what it needed was a kind of “stock” it could consistently draw from to fuel its ever-greater appetite.

From stage left came the perfect answer: fossil carbons. We won’t discuss the mechanisms of coal, oil, and natural gas much here—you can read about them elsewhere in our library. In all honesty, their relevance to our discussion of the human superorganism is fairly simple. Starting with the Industrial Revolution and ratcheting up through the present-day, fossil energy use has been THE underpinning of exponential industrial growth. These “stocks” we’ve drawn down so rapidly provide the consistent, high-powered fuel for our heat engine that natural flows cannot. 

Energy is quite literally all around us; embodied in nearly every aspect of capitalist-industrial society and giving rise to the Anthropocene epoch. But no matter how all-encompassing the current scope of humanity may appear, even now our underlying aggregate behavior remains predictable.

The Superorganism in the Present-Day

Today, much of the human population on Earth appears to be the pinnacle of interconnected and globalized. With the whole world seemingly at our fingertips, under rubber tires and metal wings, and broadcast and debated across society every day, it’s easy to imagine that our aggregate behavior is more complex and unpredictable than ever before. 

But this is a dangerous falsehood. There is a great disconnect between behavior at the micro scale and behavior at the macro scale. Individually, each and every one of us subjectively experiences existence pretty much the same as we always have—life’s trials and tribulations filtered through brains and bodies largely the same as those of our ancestors. But the same cannot be said of society itself. Culturally, humans have evolved a great, great deal over the millennia; physically, humans have not.

Therefore, we have the tendency to imbue aggregate-level systems working to improve the world—such as nonprofits, grassroots movements, and other change-makers—with the same physical structures and mental constructs as we did to our small tribes of the past. 

When group sizes were small and decisions largely dealt with straight-forward, immediate needs (“Where to forage tomorrow?”, “Which nearby tribes to forge alliances with?”, “When to fortify shelter for winter?”), it made sense to involve most everyone in the decision-making process. And this used to work! Keeping everyone informed, and quickly taking action based on group consensus, was both possible and practical at this scale. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record… the same cannot be said anymore.

Many current change-making systems remain organized around eerily similar processes and behaviors. Looking more closely at nonprofits, advocacy organizations, and mass movements in general, we see a similar kind of consensus behavior at play. Often, we seem to think: “If everyone knows everything, then surely the best decisions will be made!” No matter one’s political party, beliefs, or agenda, en masse we tend to resort to this same “enlightenment” model of decision-making as small-scale societies employed. 

But in larger and larger “tribes,” with more and more individuals to inform, this doesn’t work too well. It just feels like it should.

Now that’s a LARGE group of decision-makers!

Because while we may act as an aggregate superorganism, there is NO aggregate “supermind.” The ability to think, sort complex propositions, and come to decisions based on that processing can only occur at the level of the individual mind. Individuals can join together to share their processing and come to agreement, but groups of people cannot function as a single mind. Thus, it makes very little sense that traditional, widely accepted systems of change-making are rooted so thoroughly on the aggregate level, where dealing effectively with complexity is most difficult. 

While we may act as an aggregate superorganism, there is NO aggregate “supermind.”

It’s an inverse relationship: as one goes up the ladder of human systems, the complexity of reasoning and decision-making goes down. This is why both traditional social systems and their emergent behaviors are greatly simplified across dominant, present-day society.

Often, we discuss these entities—Congress, markets, the Church, this organization or that—as if they possess the characteristics of an individual. But Congress doesn’t have a “will;” the markets don’t have preordained “direction;” the Church isn’t “good” or “evil” and organizations don’t have “wisdom” or “foresight.” They, among many of our collective constructs, are all the results of many, many individuals filling their respective roles—like that hive model we discussed earlier—and coming to slow, often binary decisions.

At such a hyper-inflated scale, there’s simply no way around it. Processing information in such large groups is slowwwww, and as a result action is normally reduced to a small number of choices, no matter if the issues being dealt with would be better served by targeted, complicated solutions. And so we see that even if the end goals of mass movements, organizations, and policies are positive, the means to get there are all too often ineffective. It feels like problems would be solved when enough information about them has been disseminated. Why? Because it feels like effective, decisive action should follow right behind. But managing such action is difficult as group size increases, and so often our lofty goals are not realized.

This is not to discount the value of collaboration; unlike mountain lions, no one’s suggesting we take on the world alone. But to effectively and efficiently create informed change, we believe collaboration is best done between small, tightly organized groups. In this model, copious time spent managing public relations, growing member bases, and spreading information between parties is minimized; cultivating deep relationships and cultures of knowledge-sharing is maximized; and utilizing strategic, stepwise plans to affect desired systems is prioritized over continuous noise-making.

These strategies are nowhere near exhaustive; they simply represent a few that we believe combat the mass simplification of thinking, sharing, and acting that occurs on the aggregate level—one of many negative externalities of the superorganism phenomenon. 

To read more about strategies for effective change-making, check out this piece here. The myriad crises we face demand better means to resolve them, ones that our current societal structures and narratives struggle to effectuate.

Beyond the Superorganism

Few will ever know what the Apollo 8 crewmen must have felt upon taking in the entirety of our planet; the blue-white marble a mere disc pushed up from the infinite dark. They left its grasp—briefly—but alas quickly returned, pulled in like an errant magnet. 

That “good Earth” is our only home. But fortunately, then as now, there remains on that Earth immeasurable space for a different kind of “good:” space for hope, space for creation, space for change. We are not restricted from our previous ways of being on this planet; the many changes we’ve wrought over the centuries are of our own volition. In other words, the only thing stopping us from altering our ways is us. And we must alter them. This superorganism we’ve discussed at length was birthed—like bacteria on a petri dish—in a physical, but finite growth medium; which in humanity’s case is characterized by climate stability, resource abundance, and widespread exploitation.

“The only thing stopping us from altering our ways is us”

While growth as we know it will not last forever, nothing has to be finite about our future, and possibilities for betterment and change. We’ll go much further into reimagining this future, but reconciling our many aggregate-level flaws is a big step towards dismantling destructive systems, reseeding alternative ways of being, and defending the living world. 

We hope to “see ourselves as riders on the Earth together”—humans and non-humans alike—and hope you’ll join us in charting a better path forward.

Works Cited
“Apollo 8 Genesis Reading.” In Wikipedia, May 30, 2020.

The Guardian. “Earthrise: The Story behind Our Planet’s Most Famous Photo,” December 22, 2018.

Uma (in)certa antropologia. “Edward O. Wilson: The Riddle of the Human Species (N.Y.Times),” February 27, 2013.

Khan Academy. “Energy Flow and Primary Productivity (Article).” Accessed August 27, 2020.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Eusocial Species | Biology.” Accessed September 9, 2020.

Mountain Lion Foundation. “Frequently Asked Questions About Mountain Lions.” Accessed September 8, 2020.

“Heat Engine.” In Wikipedia, July 27, 2020.

Pale Blue Dot.” In Wikipedia, August 13, 2020.

The Guardian. “Perfect Harmony: The Gaia Theory,” April 27, 2008.