Superorganism: Unite or Die

As the delegates from the thirteen American colonies gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence – an act of treason against the English Crown – Benjamin Franklin warned them all, using a pun to make his point, according to legend, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” (Franklin also inspired the revolutionary era slogan “Unite or Die,” along with the famous political cartoon showing a snake cut into segments symbolizing the divisions among the separate colonies.)  Franklin’s sage advice about cooperation can be updated:  We must all survive together, or most assuredly we will all go extinct separately. 

The overarching question we face collectively is this:  Will we go into our deeply challenging future together as “us”, or will it be as “us vs. them”?  If we act as a cooperative global community, with all of us having a stake in the outcome, then transformative positive changes are possible, and a brighter future beckons us.  It may even be possible to achieve a sustainable global superorganism.  But if we define the challenge in competitive terms as a zero-sum game, then battle lines will be drawn, social and political conflict will be inevitable, and there may eventually be an all-consuming struggle.  As the global crisis becomes greater and the stakes get higher, so will the mortal threat to us all.  Indeed, our current global system of competitive nation states makes this outcome much more likely. 

A symptom of this menacing dynamic is China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative,” which evokes its ancient trading prowess and its original Silk Road to Europe many centuries ago.  At heart, this policy is part of an expansive nationalistic enterprise that is likely to become more threatening to other nations over time, despite China’s assurances to the contrary.  Indeed, the recent demonstrations and rioting in Hong Kong, and China’s pushback and virtual coup, was a further sign of China’s new assertiveness.  Especially alarming are the concentration camps that have been established by the Chinese authorities to “re-educate” the 12 million Chinese Uighurs, mainly in Xinjiang Province. 

If the world follows an “us vs. them” dynamic going forward, our trust in one another will inevitably be guarded and fragile, even among some of those we now consider to be “us.” Any boundary line between us and them is labile; it can be moved at any time.  (As we know, there are already deep fault lines in many countries, where minorities are treated as less equal than the rest of “us.”)   And in countries where the social contract has become frayed or has even broken down, we may feel free to exploit others whenever we can – and vice versa!  Worse yet, we may re-define as “them” anyone whose resources we covet and disregard the hunger, and suffering, and deaths we cause among those who do not directly serve our interests, or who get in our way.  Some of us already do this, of course, (e.g., Russia in Ukraine) but the problem is likely to get far worse. 

However, the reality is that our vital interests are much more closely tied together than many of us realize.  We are inescapably interdependent.  For better or worse, we have a shared fate, and we can ignore this reality only at our peril.  Let’s take a closer look at this pivotal assertion.

The process of “globalization” – knitting the world together into an interdependent, superorganic whole – began in ancient times (about 50 B.C.)  with trade relationships between Rome, Africa, and India, and with the original Silk Road overland from China to Europe.  By the 15th century, Chinese fleets with huge sailing vessels had established many overseas trading routes.   Then China retreated and turned inward under an imperial decree.   The European voyages of discovery in the 16th century reenergized the process, and this soon led to the development of an overseas network of trade in various commodities.  However, it also incited a competitive scramble for colonies and empires between rival European nations, which contributed to the two catastrophic world wars of the twentieth century.

Although the European imperial system was dismantled after World War Two, there remains to this day a dense network of overseas dependencies between various countries in relation to such important commodities as sugar, coffee, tea, spices, raw cotton, silk, rubber, minerals, metal ores, lumber, fossil fuels, and, most critically, food products.  The U.K., for example, imports some 40% of its food.  China imports about 80% of the world’s total soybean crop, mainly to feed its livestock, while the U.S. imports more than one-half of its fruits and one-third of its vegetables.  All told, some 37 countries with about 1.4 billion people are currently listed as being unable to grow all their own food.  

 This deep and enduring trade interdependency has now become far greater and more complex.  Globalization is today a process with many dimensions, and many linkages.  Manfred Steger, in his definitive book-length study of this process, Globalization (2013), characterizes it as a “great convergence” – a tapestry with many different strands.  Here is just a brief look at some of these strands:

Economics – This all-important category has many facets.  International trade in goods and services in 2018 represented about one-quarter of the total global GDP of some $86 trillion dollars, including $1.5 trillion in food and $1.7 trillion in other agricultural products.  (A trillion dollars is equivalent to one thousand billion.)  International travel and tourism (including indirect expenditures like food, recreation, clothing, and “visitor exports”) represented another 10% of the world’s total GDP (about $8.8 trillion) and accounted for an estimated 315 million jobs, or almost 10% of all global employment in that year. 

Non-cash overseas transactions alone (mostly credit and debit cards) amounted to about $600 billion in 2018.  Likewise, international business investments totaled $1.8 trillion. (The cumulative foreign investment between countries over the past decade is estimated to be more than $10 trillion.)  The sum-total of all foreign exchange monetary trading in 2019 surged to a staggering $6.6 trillion per day on average.  Equally significant, the developing countries have a combined international indebtedness of about $6.8 trillion.  (By 2021, the total global GDP had increased to about $96 trillion.)

Our global economic interdependence is also evident in the growing role (and power) of transnational corporations (often called TNCs).  In 1970, there were only about 7,000 of them.  By 2015 the number of TNCs had increased to over 100,000, with the largest 200 firms alone accounting for over half the world’s total industrial output.  The top ten TNC companies, including familiar names like Apple, Microsoft, and Johnson & Johnson, have market values that are larger than the GDP even of some mid-sized countries like Turkey, Austria, Chile, and Finland.  Thus, the business strategies, resource purchases, manufacturing locations, component supply chains, marketing efforts, and labor practices of the TNCs have a huge impact on the global economy.

One measure of this impact can be seen in the role of container ships.  After shipping containers were introduced in the 1950s, the time required for overseas transport plunged by about 85% and the cost per ton declined by 35%.  Sixty years later, our global container ship infrastructure is valued at $4 trillion.  It includes about 450 ports and some 5,000 huge container ships which (currently) move more than 1.6 billion metric tons of cargo every year compared to 330 million tons in 1950, or about five times as much.

Politics The nation-state remains a central actor in global politics, but it is increasingly hemmed in, constrained, and superseded by a great many external economic, and political obligations and pressures that are beyond the control even of the largest superpowers.  Despite the recent upsurge of nationalism in parts of the West – animated by a combination of extreme economic inequality and insecurity, a perceived refugee threat, and a reaction against liberal immigration policies – there is nevertheless an ever-thickening web of transnational organizations, agreements, rules, and norms that amount to a process of piecemeal growth in global self-governance and a global superorganism.

This process began, perhaps, with the amorphous domain of “international law” that dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  International law is not, in fact, a body of codified laws but an evolving set of mostly consensual agreements, rules, norms, and practices that were related initially to the conduct of war but have gradually expanded to include a range of conflicts between nations, from territorial disputes and labor practices to financial and environmental issues.  Nowadays, disputes between nations can be arbitrated through the International Court of Justice in the Hague (in the Netherlands), established in 1921, while criminal actions (from crimes against humanity to genocide) can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, which dates from the 1990s.

In a similar way, a global regime governing the world’s oceans began small in the nineteenth century with an international agreement regarding navigational “rules of the road.”  The pact was designed primarily to prevent ships from colliding with one another at sea.  Then, in 1994, a comprehensive international treaty – the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – codified territorial boundaries, defined fishing rules, and spelled out the rights of coastal nations to claim seabed mineral resources, among other things.   UNCLOS is also surrounded by a network of private organizations concerned with wildlife conservation, fisheries, reducing pollution, saving coral reefs, and more.

An even more extensive act of global self-governance can be seen in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  The traditional practice of erecting trade restrictions between nations to protect local industries was a major contributor to the Great Depression in the 1930s and to World War Two.  This motivated the victors, led by Britain and the U.S., to establish a post-war trading regime dedicated to enhancing trade and reducing trade barriers.  One result was the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1948 and ultimately the more comprehensive WTO in the 1990s.  The WTO provides broad regulation of international trade, along with a framework for negotiations and for arbitrating disputes.  It has been controversial from the start.  Indeed, the loopholes – with exemptions for environmental protection and “national security,” which the U.S. has invoked under President Trump’s “trade war” – could be a road to the land fill for the WTO if these escape-hatches are not closed.  

The most visible and far-reaching step toward increased global governance is, of course, the United Nations itself.  Established immediately after World War Two with the primary objective  – lodged in the Security Council and General Assembly  – of mediating conflicts between nations and preventing another destructive world war, the U.N. is supplemented by a wide range of special-purpose agencies that play a many-faceted role in world affairs, like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Postal Union, the World Meteorological Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, the International Civil Aviation  Organization (ICAO), and, of course, UNCLOS.  Despite widespread disappointment about the U.N.’s performance with peace keeping, the quiet work done by its many “alphabet soup” agencies provide a positive model of international cooperation.  (Hold this thought.) 

Then there is the European Union with its 27 members (after “Brexit” by the U.K.), as well as the NATO alliance with 30 member-states (and two more pending), plus regional organizations like the African Union, the Arab League, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Union of South American Nations (USAN).  These days there are also a growing number of cooperative bilateral relationships between cities, states and provinces in different countries, not to mention the increasingly intense cooperation between police agencies around the world in this age of terrorism, international drug trafficking, and waves of refugees and illegal immigrants. 

And let’s not forget the landmark – though imperfect – Paris Climate Accord in 2015, where 195 nations pledged to undertake various (voluntary) efforts to curb climate warming, followed by the 2018 update in Poland.  However, the U.N. Climate Summit in the Fall of 2019 was a disappointment. The recent COP15 biodiversity conference of 190 countries in Canada and the COP27 conference in Egypt were more productive but still fell short of imposing mandatory changes. More hopeful was the landmark 2023 agreement by 190 countries to protect the biodiversity in the world’s unprotected oceans.

In addition to these formal transnational agreements and institutions, there are a myriad of so-called Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) – mostly voluntary, not-for-profit groups – that encompass an enormous variety of social “missions” and provide many kinds of goods and services across national borders.  Some are supported by corporations or traditional philanthropic organizations, like the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates foundations, but many others depend on volunteers and one-off fund-raising campaigns.  A recent estimate puts the total number of NGOs at an astonishing 10 million, although a large majority of these probably work only within their own home countries and localities.  They do everything from providing food assistance, like Oxfam, to underwriting education, health care, infrastructure improvements, agricultural development assistance, political advocacy, and much more.  There are legitimate criticisms of NGOs, to be sure.  They are not always altruistic, or effective.  Sometimes they act in a dictatorial way, or even create new problems.  Nonetheless, their global influence is important and growing.

Consider, for example, the Grameen Bank, founded in 1976 by the Nobel Peace Prize winning entrepreneur from Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus.  Dubbed “banker to the poor,” Yunus created a non-profit bank that specializes in making “micro-loans” to people in poor communities who want to start a small business.  The idea took off, and as of 2017 the bank had 2,600 branches with 9 million borrowers, as well as spin-off projects in 40 other countries, including the U.S.  The bank also has a phenomenal 99% loan repayment rate so far, according to Yunus (2017).

One of the most notable recent examples of an NGO contribution to the global community was the successful effort (thus far), led by Doctors Without Borders and some 4,000 volunteers (physicians and other medical personnel), to combat the Ebola virus in West Africa.  Ebola is both highly contagious and kills up to 90% of those who are infected.  Doctors Without Borders, together with other organizations and volunteers, prevented what could have become a deadly global pandemic.  A recent resurgence has presented new challenges, but a newly developed vaccine holds great promise. 

Transportation and communications – Travel across national borders has reached mind-staggering numbers.  Of the total of 36.8 million commercial airline flights worldwide in 2017, an estimated 33,000 each day (or 12 million all told) crossed national borders.  Between 2004 and 2017 the total number of international airline passengers a year more than doubled, from 1.9 billion to an estimated 4.1 billion.  And this doesn’t count corporate and private air travel, or flights by government agencies, or the vast tonnage of air cargo (an estimated 63 million metric tons in 2019).  Or the countless trips between countries by cars, buses, trains, and cruise ships.  We have become a globe-spanning community.

It almost goes without saying that our communications technologies are having a similar transformative effect on our global society.   The number of Internet users at the end of 2017 was 4.15 billion, or more than half of the estimated total world population.  The active members of Facebook reached 3.1 billion (though there were also more than one billion fake BOTS).  And the number of mobile phone users world-wide in 2019 was about 4.6 billion.  Perhaps the single best measure of how our twenty-first century communications technologies have been knitting the world together is the enormous audience for the 2022 World Cup competition – some 3.5 billion viewers.  Equally important, these new communications technologies are having a huge impact in the world’s poorest countries, enabling them to leapfrog the developmental process in many ways.  In Africa, where many of the poorest countries are found, there are now over 450 million mobile phone subscribers who are using their phones to conduct business, transfer money, obtain health care information and consultations, gain an education and, increasingly, influence local politics.  

The revolution in global communications has a double edge, of course.  On the one hand, it provides access to an ever-growing storehouse of information; it facilitates and shapes our business and personal lives in many different ways; and it can be used as an organizing tool for just about any social purpose or political cause.  On the other hand, it can also be used to spread “fake news”; it can empower people and governments that have sinister purposes; and it can be used as a powerful new tool of social control and manipulation, including cyberwarfare – as North Korea did to SONY and South Korean banks, and as Russia did in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections, among other examples. 

What all of this adds up to is a powerful momentum toward greater interdependence and integration as a global society – a global superorganism.  It also means that we live in a far more complex and interconnected world than many of us may realize.  This global system creates huge networks of synergy – unique combined effects that are otherwise unattainable – but it also creates vast interdependencies.   All of us have an array of some 14 distinct categories of basic needs, absolute requisites for our biological survival and well-being, and it is clear that the satisfaction of these needs in complex societies like our own depends on the skills and efforts of millions of other people (much of it invisible to us), including the work of a growing number of organizations and people in other countries.  (We’ll come back to these basic biological needs shortly.)  This is the reason why our emerging global superorganism can legitimately be characterized as a “collective survival enterprise.”  Moreover, and this point is crucial, our superorganism also depends on a complex environmental support system with many ecological interdependencies – as does all of life on Earth.

However, the rapidly growing science of complexity teaches us that this emerging global superorganism is also highly vulnerable.   A complex system may be subject to a catastrophic failure if even a single important part (or resource) fails (see Capra & Luisi, 2014).  I call it “synergy minus one.”  Take away a wheel from an automobile, or a single weak link in a chain, or the water supply from any human community (like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2022, or the dark scenario in Section One).  We are ever-more susceptible to what can be called the paradox of dependency.  The paradox arises from the fact that, the more valuable something is to us, the greater is the cost of losing it. 

A major example of this vulnerability can be seen in the Great Recession of 2008-2012, which was triggered by a financial meltdown and a freezing-up of capital markets on Wall Street.   Among the many adverse consequences: Overall global GDP sank by 4.2%; industrial output in various countries fell by 12-31%; and an estimated 50 million jobs were lost world-wide.  The U.S. unemployment rate jumped from 4.2% to 10.1% (or 16.3% if you count “discouraged” workers who left the labor force or could only find part time work), while the jobless rate in some European countries reached 25%.  There were also many millions of personal and family traumas associated with losing jobs, personal savings, and homes to mortgage foreclosures.  The U.S. alone had some 4 million foreclosures per year, as well as 2.5 million shuttered businesses, and a spike in “food deprivation” (hunger) to a peak of almost 50 million people.  Even millions of truly innocent children suffered.  It’s not surprising that this historic economic crisis – driven by greed, deception, corruption, and even illegal acts that were never punished – triggered angry political upheavals in various countries.

Another example of our collective vulnerability is the total blackout of electrical power in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, a breakdown that took many months to repair.  A follow-up study at Harvard University estimated that the number of excess deaths due to the power loss was over 4,600 (out of a population of 3.3 million), many of them from a lack of medical care after the disaster (Kishore et al., 2018). (A belated, somewhat suspect “official” tally later put the number at just under 3,000.)  There were also severe food and water shortages, tens of thousands of islanders who were made homeless, many thousands of others who fled to the mainland, and an already struggling economy that was further undermined.  The total dollar amount required for recovery and rebuilding of the island has been estimated to be at least $95 billion, with little of it paid for by insurance.  And Puerto Rico was damaged by another hurricane in 2022. So, there may never be a full recovery.

Finally, there is the Covid-19 pandemic.  Though the full toll has not yet been added up, it will be the deepest economic recession in history, with disrupted manufacturing, shuttered restaurants and theaters, a devastated tourism and travel industry, shortages and/or price spikes in many products, and a crisis in the health and medical sectors.  Not to mention the many millions who have suffered and died from the coronavirus.  A virus!   

Even the super wealthy among us need to take notice.  Call it the reality of survival in a complex, interdependent, disaster-prone world.   The fantasy of retreating to a billionaire bunker, or a secluded private island, or perhaps an (eventual) escape to Mars ignores the fact that even the upper 1% depend on our economic system, and our vast infrastructure – from food, and water, to waste disposal, medical services, electrical power, transportation systems, and, oh yes, police officers, fire fighters, trash collectors, and farmers, ad infinitum.  Consider this: The average food item in this country is the product of an enormously complex system with many millions of workers and complex technologies, most of which depend on fossil fuels.  Any given food item is typically handled and processed several times and travels over 1,000 miles before it is consumed.  Only a small fraction (about 12%) of what we pay for food in a grocery store, or a restaurant goes to the farmer.  We live in an enormously complex collective survival enterprise.

Indeed, the wealth of the top 1% is inextricably tied to the fate of the rest of us.  Their financial holdings and income mainly include such things as stocks and bonds, revenue generated from commercial investments, principal and interest payments from debtors who hold many millions of home mortgages, car loans, and the like, along with rental and leasing income, and revenues from business sales.  Capitalism depends on customers!  And debtors who can pay their bills.  And trained and willing workers.  And cooperation, social trust, and obedience to our laws and norms – what is often referred to these days as “social capital.” 

We also know that real property values can crater in an economic depression, and the more property you own, the bigger the crater may be.  The favored safe haven of the rich, such as gold in various forms (and, these days, high-end art and “collectibles”), cannot be used as a substitute for food, water, or electric power.  They can only be used to purchase these things from somebody else who has them and who is willing to exchange them for your gold or your art.  In all of the many collapsed and vanished societies in the past, we know of no case where the wealthy elite managed to survive and prosper.  They only got tombs with more grave goods, and more art. 

We are all in this thing together – the collective survival enterprise.  It’s “fake news” (or a “terminological inexactitude” in Winston Churchill’s famous euphemism) to believe otherwise.  And if you pursue your self-interest without regard for others, you will ultimately run afoul of their vital self-interests, and even very likely your own interests.  It’s time for our wealthy “job creators” (and their political allies) to outgrow the naïve fantasies of the elitist guru to whom they all genuflect – the twentieth century novelist and high priestess of the billionaire class, Ayn Rand.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the survival enterprise in humankind entails no less than 14 distinct categories of “basic needs” – absolute requirements for the survival and reproduction of every individual, and of society as a whole over time.  (I’ll discuss these basic needs further in the next section.)   It is, in fact, our basic biological needs, and the overarching survival problem, that lie at the core of the venerable concept of the “common good” – the fundamental social value that encompasses the things that affect all of us. 

The concept of a common good has very deep roots.  It was a central theme in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and it has long been featured as a moral principle in Christianity.  For instance, Pope Francis in his 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, a major doctrinal pronouncement for the Catholic Church, explicitly called for a reorientation of our global economic system away from capitalism and self-interest toward serving the common good.  The Pope also used this term no less than six times in his landmark 2016 speech to the U.S. Congress.   

Likewise, evolutionary biologists, notably including the prominent theorist Egbert Leigh (1983,1991), use the concept of the common good in relation to the problem of survival for any complex organism in the natural world, especially any socially organized species.

The common good was also stressed by America’s Founding Fathers, including James Madison, who wrote about it in The Federalist papers under the heading of the “public good.”  Our Constitution also proclaims that its fundamental objectives are “the general welfare” and the interests of “we the people.”

Modern writers on the subject, such as Robert Reich in his recent book The Common Good (2018), argue that it must also include shared social norms and operating principles – like cooperation, social trust, respect for law, telling the truth, inclusiveness, and perhaps even devotion to equal opportunity and political democracy.  And, of course, we should follow the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The Golden Rule is a basic norm in virtually every culture and religion. 

I prefer to package these principles and values under the heading of a “social contract” – another venerable idea that goes back at least to the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1984/1762) and perhaps to ancient Greece.  We should all respect basic social values because we have a common stake in preserving and advancing our collective survival enterprise, our superorganism, and we have a mutual obligation to do so under the social justice principle of reciprocity – one of the three moral precepts that are foundational for any society.  (We’ll talk about the other two, equality and equity, later on.)  Our “social contract” is rooted in our shared biological purpose, our evolutionary heritage, and our interdependence.  If we betray or reject this social contract, we are violating a set of ethical norms that may trace back 5-7 million years in a direct line of descent from our remote ancestors.

The rest of the multi-million-year story of our evolution as a species followed this same basic formula.  Cooperation and innovation were the underlying themes, and the synergies that were produced (the economic benefits) were the reason why our ancestors cooperated, and why they survived.  Thus, the emergence of the much larger and bigger-brained Homo erectus some 2 million years ago was the result of a synergistic joint venture, namely, the hunting of big game animals in closely cooperating groups with the aid of an array of potent new tools – finely balanced throwing spears, hand axes, cutting tools, carriers, and (eventually) fire and cooking.  Not to mention (quite likely) sequestered home bases, midwifery, and the first baby-sitting cooperatives.  It was a collective survival enterprise, a superorganism, and it was sustained by multiple synergies.

The final emergence of modern humankind, perhaps as early as 300,000 years ago, represented a further elaboration of this collective survival strategy.  Novel economic synergies enabled the evolution of much larger groups.  Each “tribe” was, in effect, a coalition of many families that was sustained by a sophisticated array of new technologies – shelters, clothing, food processing, food preservation and storage techniques, and much else.  Especially important were the more efficient new hunting and gathering tools, like spear throwers (which greatly increased their range and accuracy), bows and arrows, nets, traps, and a variety of fishing techniques.  Indeed, culture itself (including spoken language) became a powerful engine of cumulative evolutionary change.  Our collective survival enterprise – our superorganism – became an autocatalytic engine of growth and innovation (and environmental disruption) as synergy begat more synergy.  Some anthropologists have invoked the idea of culture as a “collective brain.”

 Now there is a human population of 8 billion people, many of them living in dense super-tribes supported by a mind-boggling array of complex technologies and doomsday weapons.  Meanwhile, the collective survival enterprise has increasingly become a global undertaking, as we have seen.  We are ever-more interdependent when it comes to meeting our basic survival and reproductive needs.  And a key part of this survival strategy is an enormously complex – and synergistic – combination of labor which transcends our many cultural and political boundaries.  It constitutes an emergent global superorganism. 


Stay tuned for the next installment in December 2023Chapter 5. Building a Superorganism


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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