The crux of the matter regarding the nature of the superorganism (or
interdependent social species) is whether the phenomenon is a product
of evolutionary genetics or a product of repression. After all, a
superorganism is not just a static collection of many members with one
fertile queen – as many people believe – but there is a variety of
structures, behaviours, and dynamic internal environments. The
following observations – from entomologists themselves concerning ant
and bee species – strongly suggest that much of superorganism behaviour
is due to the mechanism of dominance and repression and not genetics.
Contrary to popular belief it is not just the queen who can lay eggs or mate:
"Because the first brood of offspring contains both sexes, some of the workers are mated and may occasionally lay eggs. However, the ovaries of such bees are not as enlarged as those of the queen. Among the workers, though, there is variation in the size of the ovaries."
Not only are worker bees capable of laying eggs, but when a superorganism breaks up, the workers can mate and start a new colony with themselves as the queens. This shows that their previous "infertile" state was only a repressed state and that when the repression of the superorganism is lifted, the worker becomes fertile:
"A bee generally works in the nest when younger and forages and lays eggs when older, but foragers occasionally lay eggs and the bees seem to switch quite readily from one task to another. After three or four generations have been produced throughout the season, the organization of the colony breaks up and several of the younger females mate and hibernate. They will become active the following spring and begin the cycle anew."
And another example of sudden fertility as a result of an absent queen:
"Ant workers usually do not exhibit any dominance or conflict behavior; they cooperate in the care of the offspring of their mother queen, as shown in this portrait of the Neotropical ponerine species Ectatomma ruidum. Nevertheless, conflict among nestmate workers can arise if the queen is lost and the workers become fertile."
Workers also are involved in their own battles for dominance and supremacy; while some worker ants even lay eggs while the queen is present:
"Dominance struggles occur even among ant workers of the same colony. Blame Cole, an American entomologist, first demonstrated the phenomenon conclusively by marking workers of the Floridian species Leptothorax allardycei so that they could be followed individually. Conflict, he observed, reaches a peak when the mother queen is removed. He estimated that the most competitive workers in queenless colonies spend more time threatening and pummeling one another than they do taking care of the brood. The Leptothorax workers are so self-serving that even when the queen is present the most dominant individuals lay 20 percent of the eggs. Such eggs are unfertilized and therefore destined, should they survive at all, to produce males. High-ranking workers also consistently receive more food, which allows them to grow large ovaries filled with eggs."
The female members of a superorganism do have the potential to lay eggs and mate, so the queen uses various means of suppressing their genetic potential to stop them from reproducing. The simplest means of stopping reproduction is not to produce any male offspring:
"The females of some species [of sweat bees] raise a first generation that consists entirely of daughters. These cannot mate and, in the case of social species, they are 'predisposed' to remain with their natal nest and act as non-reproductive workers. In a sense, therefore, by producing no males among the first generation, a female manipulates the behaviour of her daughters in such a way as to make it likely that they will remain to help rear later generations."
The queen's domination over her offspring can also be physical in nature:
"Her daughters remain in the nest, enlarging it, building more cells and provisioning them. The colony is now at a simple eusocial level of organization. During this time, the foundress queen asserts domination over her daughters by nudging them frequently with her head. This presumably inhibits the development of their ovaries."
Queens can also use chemical weapons to suppress rivals:
"The primary nest queens of other ant species are even more subtle. They produce inhibitory pheromones, chemical substances that prevent the production of eggs in the ovaries of virgin queens and workers. If the weaver-ant queen is removed, some of the workers will begin to lay eggs. But if the queen dies and her corpse is left in the nest, so that she continues to exude the pheromone even after death, the workers will remain infertile."
When the queen's constant repressive influence is removed from the superorganism, the suppressed biology of some subordinate members returns to normal:
[South African honey bee]: "What is happening is that, in the absence of the queen, the atrophied ovaries of a few workers begin to function and they lay unfertilized eggs."
Some superorganisms have a number of cohabitating queens, but they also can have their dominant / subordinate battles:
"Dominance struggles for reproductive rights also occur among queens in older, mature colonies. Jurgen Heinze, an associate of Bert Holldobler in Wurzburg, discovered the phenomenon in several species of Leptothorax. Dominance rituals among the queens lead to the establishment of functional monogyny, in which only the queen at the summit of the social hierarchy reproduces."
Killing the young is also a means of exerting dominance:
"The queens of some ant species use a more subtle method of control. They do not challenge their rivals to combat, but instead pull their eggs from the brood pile and eat them. Those who destroy the largest number of opponents' eggs while losing the fewest of their own are in effect dominant, at least by Darwinian standards: their daughters will be disproportionately represented among the workers and in the next generation of queens."
There is even a type of superorganism that does not have any queens at all, but its workers are no less combatant over positions of dominance. Physical damage to their bodies leads to biologically repressed sexuality.
"[the Australian species of the ponerine hunting ants, Diacamma australe]. These large, swift-running ants have no queens. All the females, which are anatomically workers, emerge from the cocoon bearing tiny, budlike vestigial wings called gemmae. The most dominant worker, who lays the eggs, bites off the gemmae of her nestmates soon after they appear. The mutilation inhibits the development of their ovaries, consigning them permanently to worker status. Only the dominant worker mates with males, and only she reproduces. When her gemmae are surgically removed in the laboratory, however, she becomes timid and is transformed into a functional worker."
Queens of superorganisms have no distinct genetic differences from other members of the superorganism. They may have become queen by founding a colony, or having killed potential rivals. Most often, though, they are selected as lavae by the workers to become future queens. After hatching, their needs are constantly tended to by the colony. Their stature of being a queen is not due to genetics but is due to behavioural factors of being chosen, being feted upon, being fed a rich diet, and generally being over-indulged. In effect they are repressed in a psychological way because they experience a fake or unreal life by rarely leaving the hive or nest, experiencing the outside world, or fending for themselves. They become bulked-up and physically overly mature - capable of mating, laying many eggs, and exerting dominance over others via their larger size and social status. So one must ask why it is that most people automatically assume superorganisms to be a genetic phenomenon. No gene has been discovered for superorganism behaviour, and there is no mention of genetic causes for any of the above behaviours.
Similar behaviour to nature's intensely social species can be seen in the human species. A significant portion of human evolution has seen rule by kings and queens. They, too, were not genetically predisposed to leadership. They may have overthrown a ruler and then was feted upon by the populace as the new king or queen. Or, if a ruler's progeny, they may have inherited the position according to the order in which they were born, then was feted upon during upbringing. Modern-day political leaders - the replacement for kings and queens - are also not genetically predisposed to leadership, but are selected by the people and are feted upon when they achieve power (although to a lesser extent than kings and queens).
Human political leaders and law enforcement (the instrument of the leader’s authority) also exert degrees of dominance over others. This can sometimes be seen when leaders travel overseas, or during community crises. On the leader's absence, or during a crisis, party subordinates or the public respectively can become unruly and rebellious. For example, when the leader of the Australian Democrats Party, Natasha Stott Despoja, traveled to London in July, 2002, her party members back in Australia began publicly criticising each other, then her (for her non-inclusive leadership style), and then the party executive (for its barrow-pushing behaviour). One member resigned and another went into self-exile. The party was left in disarray. Stott Despoja - having cut short her trip and returned home - had to hold a meeting of all members to re-establish their support for her as leader and to "gag" her members so that they would not talk publicly about party problems (in short, she had to re-establish her dominance over them and bring them back into line). But she was "ambushed" by a "gang of four" potential leaders. Stott Despoja resigned as the party leader in August. In October a new leader - Andrew Bartlett (not part of the gang of four) - was elected the new leader. All this destabilisation - over a period of just a few months - unraveled from the leader's simple trip overseas. Just as in nature's superorganisms, when the leader is present the party members can be oppressed under his/her reign. When the leader leaves it can weaken his/her influence and allow previously repressed party members to begin expressing themselves - and even toppling the leadership.
When the insect queen's authority is removed from a colony, anarchy reigns. Similar anarchy reigns in human society when events cause law enforcement to become ineffective, such as during a social crisis or natural disaster. For example, the bashing of a black man by police led to the Los Angeles riots of 1998. The law was seen as corrupt, and therefore ineffective, and this led to an outbreak of violence, arson, and looting. The city had to wait for the violence to subside before it could restore order. In another case, the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Edna in 2005 - which rendered law enforcement inoperable - saw an outbreak of looting, rape, and shootings. Eventually, the army had to be mobilised to gradually restore order. So where does this type of violent energy reside during normal society? It is kept under control (i.e., repressed) by law enforcement. These examples show that behaviour in human society is at times just like that of superorganisms – it is only that humans have higher behaviours rather than being limited to physicality or chemistry.
Another aspect that differentiates nature's superorganisms from societies of higher organisms concerns the different methods of reproduction. Queens of insect superorganisms - like bees, ants and termites - are biologically able to lay hundreds of eggs within a short period of time, and the life cycle of the individual is short; whereas females of higher organisms like mammals only reproduce one or a few offspring at a time, and the life cycle of the individual is long (in comparison to insects). This means that a superorganism composed of higher organisms would not have all its members as the offspring of one queen or royal couple. And if we judged the nature of the superorganism on this one characteristic we would miss other evidence of the possible existence of a superorganism composed of higher organisms.
Similar reproductive control by an individual is common in mammal species. Control of a harem allows a dominant male to produce most of the offspring for the group. Killing the young may also help in this regard. For example, when a male lion takes over a pride he may kill all of the previous male's young before mating with the pride's females.
Humans are mammals, and our evolution is thought to have begun in the harem-based form. As our evolution progressed, people began worshipping queens and/or kings, and it has been common for such powerful people to have many sexual partners. Polyandry (a woman has numerous husbands) was present in some primitive societies, while polygamy (a male has numerous concubines) and polygyny (a male has numerous wives) were present in primitive, ancient, and Middle Ages societies - and lasted up until the early Twentieth Century. Polysexual practices were also associated with family dynasties, which were common in Egypt, Persia, China and Europe. These types of practices have since been outlawed in Western society, but still continue in some other societies. It is documented on film that the old Vietnam Imperial family in Hue brought in many women to stay at their court as concubines. According to their birth records of 1942, there were 10,800 Imperial descendants (princes and princesses). Today there are estimated to be about 50,000. Going further back in time, scientific studies of the Y-chromosome in Asian men - coupled with records of historical ruler behaviour - have concluded that 1.5 million present-day men (of Northern China and Mongolia) are descended from the ruler Giocangga, and 16 million present-day Asian men are descended from the ruler Genghis Khan. Besides those above, other rulers had numerous wives and concubines and numerous offspring. For example, the Mongolian Kublai Khan reportedly fathered 22 sons by 4 Mongolian wives, but undoubtedly had many more from concubines. Egyptian Ramses II reportedly fathered 96 sons and 60 daughters. And Moroccan Moulay Ismail reportedly fathered 888 children. For the more violent rulers, the effect was accentuated by practices of slaughtering male enemies (thus reducing the gene pool) and raping women as a spoil of conquest (thus producing even more offspring). So in humans, the ability to populate an empire with a significant number of one's own offspring has been an attribute of the male rather than the female. But the practices and intentions are the same as for nature's superorganisms: that is, to make the empire / superorganism as homogeneous as possible (through heredity and/or subjugation) so that it unquestioningly obeys the wishes of the queen / king / ruler.
Just like nature’s superorganisms, humans have also engaged in the killing of their young. It has been common for royalty to engage in fratricide: the killing of family members. This was undertaken for various reasons, such as to ensure that a boy is first in line for succession or, as a sibling, to eliminate potential rival rulers or to gain inheritance. A good example of this comes from Suleiman, the Ottoman Empire ruler of the 1500s. He had a harem of slave concubines who bore numerous children. He had brothers and sons killed to ensure that the strongest son (Mustafa) could inherit his reign. But such was his greed for power that he even ended up killing this son too.
Superorganisms also do not rely solely on their queen's reproduction as a means of population growth. Some superorganisms rely on raiding neighbouring groups and capturing their workers to quickly build a formidable empire.
"Walter Tschinkel, a researcher at Florida State University, observed that a larger fighting force is decisive in wars among fire-ant colonies, which are conducted frequently and at high intensity. A young colony unable to defend itself against its neighbors is quickly eliminated. Bartz and Hölldobler, in an independent study, discovered that the same phenomenon occurs in honeypot ants. When workers first emerge onto the desert floor, they start attacking other beginning colonies in the neighborhood as soon as they can find them. If victorious, they transport the brood to their own nests. The colony that wins a contest in the first encounter thus has an immediately larger force and an advantage over its remaining competitors who have not conducted a successful raid. Victory is piled upon victory until finally all the brood in the near vicinity ends up in one nest. In the process workers often abandon their own mothers in favor of the winning raiders, the ant equivalent of "better red than dead"."
Since a dominant pair of higher organisms cannot reproduce all the members of the social group, they have a similar behaviour for "owning" all the members of the group. The African wild dog group, for example, has a top breeding female. If a subordinate female within the group has a litter of pups, the top female will take those subordinate's pups and raise them amongst her own litter. She uses her position as "queen" of the group to own and control its younger members.
Again, a similar situation happens with humans. Since non-monogomous sexual systems cannot fully populate an empire - rulers have used other means to help build their empires. They have used soldiers to go out and conquer neighbouring lands to bring more people and land under their domain - making those people their subjects. They are not the ruler's direct offspring but the effect is the same - they become workers for the king / queen / ruler and their empire (superorganism).
The similarities between the behaviour of superorganisms and the behaviour of human society have already been noticed by some entomologists, and it usually relates to dominance, subordination, and an overall class system:
"As bizarre as the Diacamma dominance system may seem, it is out-done by the system that Christian Peeters and Bert Hölldobler recently discovered in the Indian ponerine ant Harpegriathos saltator. Large cob-flies of this species are class-ridden societies tense with the maneuvers of shifting status. The interactions among colony members bear a remarkable albeit superficial resemblance to some forms of human political behavior. New colonies of Harpegnathos ants are evidently founded in a conventional manner by inseminated queens. As the colony grows, however, the queen disappears and a group of mated, fully reproducing workers, called gamergates, takes over. The colony history, then, proceeds in three stages. Small colonies, in the early period of growth, comprise a reproductive queen and a few sterile workers. Middle-sized colonies still have a queen but in addition they have mated and unmated workers. Finally, large colonies, containing about 300 or more adult members, lack a queen and are composed instead entirely of mated and unmated workers. As a consequence of this life cycle, the membership of a large Harpegnathos colony is organized into three social classes, On top are the dominants, which possess fully developed ovaries and lay all the eggs. On the bottom is the class of virgin subordinates. Some of them are destined to move into the top class; about the time of their rise in rank they mate with visiting males and become reproductives. Others, however, remain in the lowest class and serve as nurses, nest builders, and foragers throughout their lives. Finally, the third class consists of mated subordinates. They in turn are of two kinds: workers who managed to mate even without rising in status, and formerly dominant gamergates who have been displaced downward in rank by more competitive nestmates. The individual fates of members of the third class are dependent on the future health and behavior of their rivals."
The same ant colony also exhibits social maneuvering between the classes, which indicates that the superorganism is a highly pressured phenomenon whose members do not always enjoy their allotted status and duties. Their behaviour is similar to human uprisings, riots and revolutions against the ruling establishment:
"Life in the Harpegnathos colony is not always filled with conflict. There are periods of apparent complete tranquillity, in which no dominance interactions are to be observed. The peace is eventually broken, however, as one worker or another rising in rank from the lower classes decides to challenge a member of the top class. Her action precipitates a frenzy of ritual dueling among the dominant workers, who scurry about as if to cement their own high status among their peers. At the same time these workers also attack any nestmates from among the lower ranks who dare challenge them. In this endeavor they do not always prevail. Some are demoted to the mated middle class and their places are taken by former subordinates. And so the society moves along in Heraclitean progression, outwardly always the same but inwardly forever changing."
Aside from the difference in reproduction rates between insects and humans
- and the severer physical effects of repression in insects - all the other
factors of the superorganism are identical in insects and in the human species:
royalty, soldiers, workers, a class system, violence, murder, riots and wars.
The fact that human societies are identical in their behaviour to ant, bee,
wasp and termite superorganisms does not necessarily mean that humans are mindless
automatons like insects "appear" to be. It just means that human beings are
trapped in a social system based on dominance and repression. The dynamics
of this social system have been difficult to recognise and break free from
because repression produces a slow accumulated unconsciousness (and lack of
feeling). The link with psychology comes from the fact that repression in humans
can now be successfully healed and accumulated unconsciousness turned back into
full consciousness (and full feeling). This fact allows us now to see for the
first time in history the dynamics of dominance and repression in social groups
and superorganisms. The answer to what is wrong with the human species - why
it has revolutions, engages in wars, and destroys the environment has now effectively
been discovered because the mechanism for healing repression has been discovered.
1.O'toole, Christopher and Raw.Anthony, Bees of the World, Blandford, London WC2N 5JE. p. 102.
2. ibid., p. 104
3. Holldobler, Bert and Wilson.Edward O., Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1994. p. 117
4. ibid. p. 90
5. O'toole, Christopher and Raw.Anthony, op. cit., p. 102
7. Holldobler, Bert and Wilson.Edward O., op. cit., p. 88
8. The Honey Bee by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould. Scientific American Library, New York, 1988, 1995. p. 39.
9.Holldobler, Bert and Wilson.Edward O., op. cit., p. 88
10. ibid., p. 88
11. ibid., p. 90
12. ibid., p. 87
13.ibid., p. 90-91
14. ibid., p. 93
'The Imperial Family', Global Village, (video production), SBS Channel 28, Wednesday 8 February, 2006, 6 pm.
'Moulay Ismail's Royal Stables', Global Village, (video production),
SBS Channel 28, Friday 30 December, 2005, 6 pm.
'Lost Worlds: Dangerous Liaisons: Famous Mistresses (part 2 of 3) -
Mistress of the Sultan', (video production), SBS Channel 28, Sunday 10
June 2007, 7.30 pm.
Below are further scientific developments relating to the above article.
Inconsistencies in a research study on honeybees - published in the April 2007 edition of
Species display a variety of social forms. The organisms with the most
unnaturally intense sociality and/or interdependence include some
insect species (like bees, wasps, termites, and ants), a few mammal
species (like mole rats), and the marine species of shrimp known as
In this study, the ANU team reflect current thinking when they initially
cannot settle on an explanation for the honeybee species' sociality.
They agree that
Later on in the article the team highlight epigenetics as biology's new explanation for the queen / worker dichotomy:
The queen larva has exactly the same genetic composition as a regular worker larva, but these two virtually different organisms follow two very different paths. These paths must be controlled by subtle modifications of the genome that don't alter its DNA sequence. These are known as epigenetic or 'above the genome' changes.”
Then nutrition is claimed to be the primary epigenetic trigger.
Genetically identical female larvae develop into queens or workers on the basis of larval nutrition. Developmental switches render workers almost entirely sterile while queens develop into one of the most fecund animals known.”
Again, this is not entirely true as there are sometimes fertile high-ranking workers.
Epigenetics refers to tags or beacons on the DNA code that can switch genes on or off. They are most often talked about when things go wrong - as in health and behavioural problems. While the ANU team focuses on nutrition as an epigenetic agent, they miss other factors that affect bee behaviours, like chemicals (the pheromones released by the queen), physical assault (the queen or high-ranking bees repeatedly nudging workers), and torment (fertile bees eating each others' eggs).
Finally as an ultimate irony, the ANU team twists the nutrition argument back around to settle on a “genetics” cause for sociality: This is because queens are fed royal jelly to bulk them up, and there is a gene responsible for its production.
The genes essential for complex social behaviours are largely a mystery. Royal jelly genes have thus far only been found in honey bees and closely related insects belonging to the same order. We hypothesize that these genes may have specifically evolved to modulate sociality via nutrition.“
If royal jelly is only found in a single order of insects - yet their sociality is similar to other species' sociality that do not produce royal jelly - then it is impossible for the royal jelly gene - and nutrition generally - to be the source of sociality. There must be another, hidden factor at work.
The team's conclusion is that diet is the sole cause of genetic switching and sociality, and that this must also be applicable to human society.
"…this work… will generate novel data on how an entire genome responds to diet and environment, and will advance our understanding of the genetic basis of whole-organism phenotypes that in this case encompass the genetic regulation of an entire society. Finally … the findings of this project have the potential to be applicable to explaining diet-induced regulatory changes underlying human gene expression. The honey bee genome is a crucial link to understanding the co-evolutionary interactions between genes and the environment.…"
Applying this conclusion to human society from such a brief study is premature.
Lastly, the team notes the following similarities and differences between humans and bees:
In both honey bees and humans, the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature that cannot be eliminated. However, humans are social beings and individual beings, and always attempt to protect their existence. Bees, on the other hand, have no self-value and work as a whole..."
Again, this last point is only partly true, because during wars and
other human conflicts, soldiers, suicide bombers, kamikaze pilots,
martyrs, crusaders, and protesters - like bees - have a reduced concern
for their own continued existence. They are prepared to die for a
cause. Overall, the ANU team's study and conclusions are too
simplistic. They only deal with surface observations underpinned by a
familiar, traditional “blame it on the genes” view for any kind of
unusual health or behavioural traits.
Repression of Pain is the real Epigenetic Causative Trigger
Research into species' sociality is valuable for two reasons: it uncovers new information that can be applicable to understanding human social problems; and it also illuminates the shortcomings of traditional knowledge. In this ANU study, the publication of the bee genome has increased our knowledge of this species, but the framework of understanding is still skewed by tradition (i.e., a genetics-based view). Genetics is a field that is blind to keen behavioural observations - such as those provided by entomologists (above). Genetics provides knowledge of biological codes, and skill at manipulating genes with chemicals, but no other knowledge is employed to offer checks and balances to assumptions and conclusions - such as information from human evolution. The team recognizes that the human genome was supposed to provide the answers to human health (and behavioural) problems, but it failed to do so. This means that the traditional view that all health problems are due to “genetics” has been proven false. So now scientists are attributing such problems to “epigenetics” (changes that occur above the genetic code). But they are unsure of what triggers epigenetic effects. They are now attributing it solely to diet because this “appears” to be the case in honeybee society, and because there is currently an epidemic of obesity (and related illnesses of diabetes, heart disease, and circulatory disease) in Western society.
The alternative theory for such extreme species' sociality is repression, which is explained by the
Human evolution also clearly shows similarities in social behaviour to other social species. From about 30,000 to 10,000 years ago humans worshipped goddesses - indicated by obese Venus Figurines - that also represented fertility. It is also believed that society at the time was ruled by females (i.e., queens). Women invented the “beehive” hairstyle, which was present on several Venus figurines (e.g., the Venus of Willendorf). The practice of agriculture, from about 10,000 years ago, came about via the study of fertility in animals and plants - which allowed humans to exert some control over them via domestication (a rudimentary form of “genetic engineering”). Beekeeping was adopted as an aid to farming to ensure crop pollination. Some forms of early architecture included “beehive” shaped dwellings, while some artifacts and artwork reflect bee-based designs. A female relief at the primitive city of Catal Hoyuk was found to have two circles around her pregnant tummy and a triangular navel - in imitation of a bee abdomen and stinger respectively. Bees' association with goddesses and with temples lasted up to the Classical Age. This indicates that people of the time were well aware of insect sociality - undoubtedly because of its similarity to human sociality. The queen's rule over human subjects was the equivalent of having her own "family" of workers without having to give birth to them all. In fact, all these signs show that human society was for a time modeled on the honeybee society to help shift it into an efficient, agriculturally productive state. From about 5,000 years ago up to just a couple of hundred years ago kings ruled society, and the practice of warfare and empire-building became endemic - with royalty (in this case kings) producing hundreds of progeny - all common traits in social species. So one must ask how a scientific team can expect to find answers to human problems by merely conducting a genetics-based study of a social species' member biology - without investigating their members' behavioural interactions, or making a substantial comparison of their sociality to human and other species' sociality.
Experience from therapy - coupled with human evolutionary evidence - indicates that repression is the major epigenetic agent, and that this is the source of interdependent sociality in humans - and in other species by way of observation and comparison. Diet, exercise, environment, and drug use are lesser epigenetic agents. In essence, what scientists describe as “epigenetics” therapists describe as “repression”. Both are talking about the same problem, but only reexperiencing-based therapies have found the real solution.
Ryszard Maleszka, 'A Queen is Made, not Born', Australasian Science, Control Publications P/L, Wattletree Rd., VIC, April 2007, p. 22-24
A recent study of house-hunting behaviour in bee colonies - by Kevin Passino (Ohio State University, Columbus) and Thomas Seeley (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York) - confirms superpsychology's observations about superorganisms behaving like a brain. The study involved observing the bee colony when it needs to democratically decide on a new nest site in spring, The house-hunting begins with half the colony forming a separate swarm cluster from which several hundred scout workers go out to search for prospective sites. Each scout comes back to the cluster and communicates their findings via a waggle dance combined with runs across the cluster. The scouts then take recruits back to visit their respective sites, and the recruits in turn communicate their assessments to the cluster with similar waggle-and-run displays. This behaviour is said to aid in social assessment and memory of potential sites. Those whose dances and runs are less enthusiastically conveyed by less recruits gradually lose support, while those whose dances and runs are more enthusiastically conveyed by more recruits gradually gain support. Eventually the enthusiasm and recruitment for one favourable site reaches a "quorum threshold" and the swarm flies off to settle at that new site. In conclusion, the scientists found that the bees behaved like neurons in a vertebrate brain - since neurons behave by influencing surrounding neurons:
"The decision-making process is a race to see which option accumulates sufficient evidence in its support…
Brains make decisions in a similar way: a neuron's level of activation is akin to the number of runs a bee makes, and high activation helps 'recruit' more neurons to its cause."
In essence, then, the bee colony behaves like one giant brain, with the workers behaving like neuron cells.
There are two questions that arise from this study. Firstly, why does the bee colony behave like a vertebrate brain when bees are invertebrates? This conclusion must have been drawn because only the vertebrate brain's internal workings have been studied to any great detail. Bee behaviours can only emanate from bee brains, so it must be the case that the bee colony is behaving like an invertebrate brain. This also suggests that an invertebrate brain behaves in a similar manner to a vertebrate brain when making decisions.
Secondly, since a number of superorganism behaviours have been identified in the human species (outlined in the top article), could there be a human counterpart to the bee colony's decision-making process that would show that our species also acts like a brain? To make a social decision individual bees must gain recruits and general supporters via communicating their findings to the colony to influence them. A number of examples show that there is a similar process in human society. For example, how does human society make a democratic decision about electing a new leader? In the USA, individual politicians - who are described as "running" for office - go on a campaign across the country holding public rallies to gain supporters and convince people of the efficacy of their policies. This is equivalent to bee dances and runs. During their campaigns the politicians attract celebrity recruits who also become spokespeople for their policies - just as bee scouts attract recruits to support their site choices. Overall, those politicians whose policies are less enthusiastically received and who gain fewer supporters eventually drop out of the race, while those whose policies are more enthusiastically received and who gain more supporters become the candidates who run for national leadership - one of whom reaches a "quorum threshold" and is elected as the president. Again, this overall process is the same as that of bees choosing a new nest site. Similar processes are involved in other fields. A new social movement or religion requires its main proponents - the revolutionary and the missionary respectively - to travel across society conveying their messages to others, to gain "converts", and to influence society to their causes. The issue of environmentalism has over the years required the recruitment of scientists and high-profile people - like ex-presidential candidate Al Gore - combined with numerous media appearances across society to convince the public of the efficacy of global warming. Businesses often employ spokesperson recruits - famous sportspeople, models, actors, etc. - in advertising campaigns to convince society of the value of their products or services. So the human species behaves in much the same way as the bee colony in that social decisions are made by individuals conveying their messages to the society, gaining recruits, and influencing others to their causes. In essence, the human species also behaves like a giant brain, with its individuals behaving like neurons in that brain. The main difference between us and bees, in this instance, is that we are more symbolically advanced and so use a vocal language to communicate our information rather than a dancing language. (We have progressed past a prehistoric stage when humans also primarily used dancing to convey stories and beliefs to their tribes.)
'House-hunting bees behave like a brain', newscientistvideo, (online), You Tube, (accessed 25 Jan 2008),
[page last updated Feb 2008]
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