Guest Writer Feature: A Shot at Utopia by Tristan Mañalac

Today's guest writer is MindMover intern Tristan Mañalac, a student of BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from University of the Philippines - Diliman. 

Growing up in the household of a borderline-obsessive compulsive neat-freak (hi, mom) instills in you, among other things, a deep, almost primal aversion towards bugs. Which is why, despite my stuck-in-place, pee-running-down-my-leg fear of cockroaches, my childlike fascination with other bugs comes as a pleasant surprise to me and a big disappointment to my mother.

Not that I don't understand it though, my fascination. Bugs are probably the most interesting group of animals. From the beautiful to the morbidly beautiful, it's completely easy to lose track of time and realize you've spent the entire night reading about the detachable white widow penis. Not that I'm saying that happened to me. Not at all.

What I find most interesting about bugs is how extremely social they can be. Some of them have societies so functional and effective that they put the ancient Greeks to shame. The actions and roles of each individual in these societies are so calculated and purposeful that they are almost like cells to a single organism. Animal societies that are this sophisticated are called superorganisms - a collective that behaves like an organism made up of smaller, individual organisms. 

Of course, not all animal groups can be considered as superorganisms. Mostly, only animals with highly advanced and sophisticated societies - the eusocial (literally, truly social) animals - can be considered as superorganisms. Eusociality has three defining characteristics: first, the ability to reproduce is exclusive only to a specific individual or social group; second, adults of different generations co-exist within the same territory; and finally, those unable to reproduce care for the young of those that can. Under these conditions, the division of labor among the individuals becomes so intricate that the entire society becomes so efficient - a superorganism.

[Photo credit: Shutterstock, Next Nature website]

As a kid, I remember how much my mom hated it when I started asking her why things were the way they are; maybe partly because she didn't know the answer, but definitely because I can get really annoying. Sorry mom, because I'm about to disappoint you for the second time in five paragraphs: why do insects and animals in general form social groups? What drives them to do this? What's in it for the individual? How did this even come about?

As it turns out, superorganisms, and animal social groups in general, are based on cooperation - something more common than we realize. So, to investigate the different levels of cooperation - from the most basic to the most sophisticated - and the forces that cause them is to tell the evolutionary story of how superorganisms came to be; and to understand how this story continues.

From Cooperation to Colony: An Evolutionary Tale

Very little in the realm of biology can be divided into discrete chunks; the same goes for eusociality. That is, there is no benchmark that societies must achieve for them to be called eusocial; rather, eusociality exists in a spectrum where some animal societies are more eusocial than others.

Very early on in the evolution of superorganisms, animals formed groups based on basic cooperative benefits. These are the animals that nature has pressured enough to help each other but not enough to restrict breeding to a single social group. These are the animals that are at the lower end of the spectrum: lions, meerkats, and hyenas are all good examples.

One of the benefits of cooperation is safety. Meerkats are known for this; they make use of squeals and shrieks to warn others of a predator then hide in underground tunnels. Hunters, like lions and hyenas, also benefit; they are more successful when they hunt in groups. On top of this, staying in groups also makes it easier to defend their territories.

[Photo credit: Wallscorner website]

Of the benefits, one of the most significant is cooperative breeding or cooperation in caring for the young, regardless of whom it belongs. At the lower end of the spectrum, helping the young of others is just a phase in the animal's life and there is no strong biological force that stops individuals from reproducing. As we progress along the spectrum, however, cooperative breeding becomes more permanent.

In the adolescence of its evolution, superorganisms become composed of members that are increasingly unable to reproduce. In these animals, only the dominant pair is able to breed while the others - the non-reproductive workers - are restricted to caring for the young. The naked mole rats are excellent examples of these.

Naked mole rats are pleasantly strange; they are the classic example of eusocial mammals. Much like eusocial insects, they live in colonies of different castes: a reproductive female, a few reproductive males, and a majority of non-reproductive female workers. In the same vein, the non-reproductive workers do much of the heavy lifting: building and defending the nest, caring for the young, and hunting for food.

[Photo credit: Lincoln Park Zoo website]

Despite an obvious division of reproductive labor, naked mole rats are still relatively "primitive" (for lack of a better word) compared to the other eusocials. For one, they form relatively small groups of, on average, 75 to 80 members. Second, and probably more important, is that the reproductive division of labor is not absolute. Naked mole rat workers are completely capable of breeding - and they do, but only in cases where the colony is fractioned or when the queen dies. 

At the highest end of the spectrum is the most evolved and sophisticated stage of superorganisms. With very intricate and deliberate division of labor, no individual action is without purpose. With a clear and definite social structure, no member puts its interest before the group's.

Of all animals, colonies of leafcutter ants are the ultimate superorganisms. In terms of structure, there isn't much difference between them and other eusocials. In terms of complexity though, they are light-years ahead. Aside from completely restricting reproduction to the queen, the degree of division of labor is incredible.

[Photo credit: The Right Stuff website]

Leafcutter ants are known to be farmers; they grow fungi as a good source. Much like how human farmers tend to their crops, leafcutter ants constantly provide their fungal farms with fresh "soil" in the form of leaf cuttings thus earning them their name. The members of the colony do different things according to their size: the smaller ones are generally in charge of tending the gardens and caring for the young while the larger ones are generally in charge of defending the colony and leaf-cutting. On top of this, leafcutter ants also throw the trash: the unwanted fungal and leaf species. Those in charge of waste disposal are the older ants, the more replaceable ones.

To the Future: Societies Without Borders

Most animal societies are xenophobic; that is, they are highly intolerant of members of other colonies. Until fairly recently, around 40 years ago, colony defense has been a common theme among animal groups. With the introduction of the red fire ant to North America though, we may as well be witnessing the next stage in the evolution of superorganisms.

The red fire ant is a native of South America. Here, they act exactly like other colonial insects do: they form distinct colonies and defend it against members of other colonies. When they entered North America, things started changing. Because of a single gene mutation, they started caring less about intruders and more about expanding their colony. Because of this, instead of forming individual colonies each with their own queen, they started forming one giant colony with many smaller queens. This colony now spreads across most of south USA and continues to expand despite efforts by the government.

[Photo credit: All Gone Services website]

As we close our discussion on superorganisms, it's not a stretch to wonder: are we the next stage in the evolution of the superorganism? Are governments our queens? Is each and every one of us a worker, each with his or her own division-of-labor-esque job to do? Are states and countries our colonies? And in light of the advancements in communication and transportation, are we becoming one giant superorganism, just like the fire ants? Is the Earth our colony?

In our world of semantics and textbook definitions, we'll probably never be superorganisms. After all, because of their efficiency and order, superorganisms do seem robotic - exactly the antithesis of what makes us human. but that doesn't stop us from constructing our own brand of superorganism - one that has the same degree of organization and productivity but is a lot more human.

But humans, the way we are right now, are destructive. We breed conflict instead of peace. We pull each other down instead of helping each other. Such is what makes us human: creation and destruction, two sides of the same coin.

[Photo credit: Mondolithic Studios]

Thus, we find ourselves in an interesting position - one from where we can directly influence the course of evolution. Do we let our intelligence win and evolve into a sustainable and harmonious global superorganism? Or do we end up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of our own human nature?


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