Our future as social organelles

In 1995, John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary published The Major Transitions in Evolution, in which they propose a number of major transitions during evolution as a possible explanation for the observed increase in biological complexity(1).

There is no theoretical reason to expect evolutionary lineages to increase in complexity with time, and no empirical evidence that they do so. Nevertheless, eukaryotic cells are more complex than prokaryotic ones, animals and plants are more complex than protist, and so on The increase in complexity may have been achieved as a result of a series of a series of major evolutionary transitions. These involved changes in the way information is stored and transmitted.

Szathmáry, Eörs, and John Maynard Smith. ‘The Major Evolutionary Transitions’

They identify a number of common features that recur in those transitions:

  1. Entities that were capable of independent replication before the transition can only replicate as part of the larger unit after it. For example, free-living bacteria evolved into organelles.
  2. The division of labour, a’ la Adam Smith. For example, in ribo-organisms nucleic acid played two roles, as genetic material and as enzymes, whereas today most enzymes are proteins.
  3. There have been changes in language, information storage and transmission. Examples include the origins of genetic code, of sexual reproduction, of epigenetic inheritance, and of human language.

Looking at the table and the rational, what would you say the next evolutionary transition could/should be if we are going to successfully evolve to a higher level of complexity?

That’s right: Forget about robots and super (individual) intelligence. The next evolutionary stage might well be a full integration of people (us) as organelles of future super (social) cells. To a large extent, our society/economy is already a kind of super-organism, with us very much focused on accomplishing the “division of labour” (feature 2). Speculation about a possible/future super-organism in which multiple minds, or consciousnesses, are linked into a collective consciousness or intelligence pervades science fiction speculation. A great example here (in Spanish).

However, we still have reproductive freedom, and I am thinking specifically about feature 1: Free living people evolving into “organelles,” a transition after which people can only replicate as parts of a larger whole, like cell’s mitochondria, as suggested by Maynard Smith and Szathmary in line 7 in the table above.

Whether such transition is an appealing prospect, I leave it to your wise judgement. But remember that evolution is not for fun:

We cannot explain these transitions in terms of the ultimate benefits they conferred.

In any case, as a difference with other much talked-about technological predictions, this is not going to happen tomorrow. Biological evolution is a long term (million year) game. Cultural evolution can be a thousand times faster, with major changes occurring in two or three generations. Yet, very likely you won’t see it fully deployed.

So, relax and enjoy the transition…


(1) Szathmáry, Eörs, and John Maynard Smith. ‘The Major Evolutionary Transitions’. Nature, vol. 374, no. 6519, 1995, pp. 227–232.


  1. […] For the time being, we do not know how to escape our core biology, and therefore, suppression may seem a better strategy. However, if you could start from scratch and design a brand new living organism, which one would you choose? What are the implications for our global super-organism strategy? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.