Four years ago, in a highly speculative post, I wondered about the current evolutionary stage and the possibility of a further integration of human beings as organelles of a future evolving superorganism. I’m happy to find I’m not completely alone in this reflection/search.
A new number of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions B is devoted to the question: Human socio-cultural evolution in light of evolutionary transitions.1
Human societies are no doubt complex. They are characterized by division of labour, multiple hierarchies, intricate communication networks and transport systems. These phenomena led Herbert Spencer in 1882 and Jacob von Uexküll et al. in 1926 to equate human society to a (super)organism. In the following decades, this notion was debated and largely brought into disrepute. The last two decades, however, saw a wave of publications mentioning that human society may be, or may become, a higher hierarchical level that may dominate the individual human, similar to the relations between an organism and its cells, or an ant colony and its members.
Recent discussions of the possibility of this major evolutionary transition (MET) and evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETI) raise interesting and controversial questions that are explored in the present issue from four different complementary perspectives.
- The general theory of ETIs. 3 papers
- The unique aspects of cultural evolution. 6 papers
- The evolutionary history and pre-history of humans. 4 papers
- Specific routes of a possible human ETI. 3 papers
There is plenty of information to be absorbed there, but I want to cherry pick a few flowers:
Lisa Krall2 argues that the transition to grain agriculture restructured human societies, creating a new whole, an economic superorganism. Homo sapiens became expansionary, structurally interdependent in material life, and a duality between them and Earth was created that had not previously existed.
Is the agricultural revolution an evolutionary transition adequately captured in existing frameworks of human social evolution? Is the human capacity for culture sufficient to override the power and dynamic of the economic superorganism?
Claes Andersson and Tamás Czárán3 maintain that the ‘sociont’ emerged as soon as human bands became incorporated in tribes with distinct culture, namely earlier than 0.5 Ma, and possibly even 2 Ma.
Paul B. Rainey4 claims that a higher-level organism may emerge as a symbiosis between humans and some form of artificial intelligence (AI).
There are reasons for scepticism, notwithstanding. A paper by Daniel W. McShea5 closes the special issue with four objections:
- The foundation of the major transitions is hierarchy, but the cross-cutting interactions in human societies undermine hierarchical structure.
- Natural selection operates in three modes—stability, growth and reproductive success—and only the third produces the complex adaptations seen in fully individuated higher levels. But human societies probably evolve mainly in the stability and growth modes.
- Highly individuated entities are marked by division of labour and commitment to morphological differentiation, but in humans differentiation is mostly behavioural and mostly reversible.
- As higher-level individuals arise, selection drains complexity, drains parts, from lower-level individuals. But there is little evidence of a drain in humans.
The most interesting finding (to me) comes from a paper by John Gowdy & Lisa Krall published in 20166, which answers another philosophical questions I formulated five years ago,
Evolutionary systems cannot see ahead. The ultrasocial system cannot see whether it is locked into an unsustainable resource use pattern.
What Are We? Where Are We Going? We do not have the slightest idea… We are a Sociont.
(1) Carmel, Yohay, Ayelet Shavit, Ehud Lamm, and Eörs Szathmáry. ‘Human Socio-Cultural Evolution in Light of Evolutionary Transitions: Introduction to the Theme Issue’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 378, no. 1872 (23 January 2023): 20210397. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0397.
(2) Krall, Lisi. ‘The Economic Superorganism in the Complexity of Evolution’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 378, no. 1872 (23 January 2023): 20210417. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0417.
(3) Andersson, Claes, and Tamás Czárán. ‘The Transition from Animal to Human Culture—Simulating the Social Protocell Hypothesis’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 378, no. 1872 (23 January 2023): 20210416. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0416.
(4) Rainey, Paul B. ‘Major Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality between Humans and AI’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 378, no. 1872 (23 January 2023): 20210408. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0408.
(5) McShea, Daniel W. ‘Four Reasons for Scepticism about a Human Major Transition in Social Individuality’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 13 March 2023. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0403.
(6) Gowdy, John, and Lisi Krall. ‘The Economic Origins of Ultrasociality’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39 (2016): e92.