Tuesday, April 14, 2009


A few days ago I took note of Bert Holldobler and Ed Wilson's magnificent new book, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. The authors show us the intricate societies that can result from collectivities of individual organisms, organisms as simple as -- as ants. The many parallels with human societies -- hierarchal class systems, the specialization of work, slavery, plant and animal agriculture, and communication among the social insects all sometime strike familiar notes. But human societies have evolved the notion of individual human rights, which take preference over genetically or culturally assigned roles within societies. So that, unlike the ants and bees, we live in a constant tension between individual freedom and collective stability. It is a fine balance we are still struggling to obtain.

And now comes the internet, and its associated communication technologies. Cell phones, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, Match.com, eBay, Wiki -- it is easy to imagine a new superorganism evolving under or noses, the Noosphere envisioned by Teilhard de Chardin. We don't rub antennae, we twitter. We don't emit pheromones, we IM. Willy-nilly the superorganism defines our niche. I sat in a doctor's waiting room the other day with a young girl who spent her entire time thumbing messages on her phone. I sit in the College Commons each morning with other early morning risers who are wirelessly connected to the internet, checking their e-mail, running through their friends on Facebook. Even the president of the United States has a MySpace page. And who doesn't have a blog, or at least a home page.

Of course, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the web, researching, and sharing through this blog. Originally the idea was to sell books, but the blog has taken on a life of its own and I'm not altogether sure it's a good thing. Anne, our former every-Sunday illuminator, realized that her commitment to a weekly production was distracting from more concentrated work. I sometimes feel the same way.

But I like it. I have been subsumed by the superorganism, and I tend my niche like an ant in a colony that plies no other task than nurturing some little patch of fungi. It remains to be seen if the emerging electronic superorganism represents an advance in human evolution, leading to mutual tolerance, collective creativity, and a generative sharing of individual achievement, or merely a leveling of exceptionalism, a twittering down to the lowest common denominator, a wikified homogenization of what was once called high culture.

I cheer for the former, but fear the latter -- as I click "Post" and send this fragment flying into the snowstorm of bits and bytes that is the blogosphere.