One of the most famous illustrations in history is the title page of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It depicts a king towering over the land, his body composed of thousands of people. The image stands as a powerful and enduring metaphor that captured Hobbes’s central claim – the state was an artificial person built from the coming together of the people under a social compact.
The looming leviathan on that title page was supposed to be a metaphor for the source of the state’s legitimacy. However, our burgeoning knowledge of biology and the human condition is starting to suggest that, in a way, that image isn’t a metaphor at all: human societies are living organisms. They are superorganisms.
A superorganism is a group of many smaller organisms which, as a whole, behave like they are a single organism. Our bodies are good examples of superorganisms, with each of us composed of upwards of thirty trillion human cells working in concert with each other, in addition to over thirty trillion more symbiotic bacteria. This means that the behaviour of any single blood cell, skin cell or neuron in the human body can only really be coherently understood through understanding the behaviour of the body as a whole.
Remarkably, however, superorganisms are not just restricted to creatures made of microscopic cells. There are a few animal species that behave as superorganisms, which we call eusocial animals.
One of the most well-known examples of a eusocial animal is the honeybee, with many a beekeeper being able to attest that a hive’s behaviour is only ever comprehensible if the beehive itself is understood to be an organism that’s directing the activity of the bees that make it up. The behaviour of a female worker bee – who won’t reproduce, yet is willing to die for the hive via its stinger – makes no sense at the individual level, but it makes a great deal of sense when the bee is understood as but a part of the beehive.
Among animals eusociality has evolved in only a few species, with ants, bees and wasps being the most notable examples. To capture the idea of the eusocial unit, the rough consensus is that eusocial animals are ones that: a) live in social units with overlapping generations, b) engage in the cooperative care of the young, and c) divide reproductive labour.
The last point – the division of reproductive labour – is probably the defining feature of eusocial animals. In honeybees, we see this through females being split between a queen and a sterile caste of workers; for the worker bee, this reproductive division of labour means their main drive cannot be their own ability to reproduce, but instead the success of their relatives and hive-mates. This reproductive division of labour prompts the evolution of specialisation, through creating behavioural groups that are devoted to catering to the group’s survival over their personal survival.
Humans clearly tick the first two boxes of eusociality, since we live in social units of overlapping generations and engage in the cooperative care of the young. But we also possess what may be the most important part of eusociality, in that we can divide up reproductive labour. That’s because we have the menopause.
Contrary to popular belief, the menopause is not an inevitable result of the ageing process. The menopause is incredibly rare within the animal kingdom with the females of most species being able to reproduce until they pass away. In fact, among the entirety of the natural world, only two groups of animals experience menopause – whales and primates. And from among these animals, human females undergo menopause at by far the earliest point in their lifespans.
This means there’s nothing biologically necessary about the menopause, which in turn means it can only be understood in evolutionary terms as an adaptation that was selected for. In humans, the development of the menopause countless millennia ago must have served to create a clear division of reproductive labour. The menopause sees the labour of post-menopausal women “freed up” from the task of bearing children, which means that energy that otherwise might be directed to creating and raising their own children is invested into caring for their broader families and communities.
Not coincidentally, this reproductive division of labour has meant that humans have developed the overarching property common to all eusocial species – specialisation. Even among those of us who can reproduce our economy and institutions encourage extreme specialisation in our work, which means that our day-to-day activity is taken up with processes that only make sense when viewed at in the context of serving societal demand. A bureaucrat, factory worker or doctor tie their prosperity up with servicing specialised societal needs, rather than doing their own paperwork, appliance manufacturing or healthcare for themselves.
Just as a beekeeper can attribute intent and direction to a whole hive, human eusociality means that we can see a society as having a life and will of its own. Viewing society in this way, and accepting the idea that human communities are superorganisms, has major political and philosophical ramifications. Much of our basic frame of reference for making societal and political decisions is couched in the interests and rights of the individual. Human eusociality subverts this.
If human society is a living organism, then its own rights and interests must be worth consideration independently (and often above) the rights of individuals. The basis for modern political philosophy – especially liberalism – rests on the idea that the role of politics is to provide a means to navigate the rights and interests of individual humans. But if a society is a living creature in of itself which exists separately of any one individual or discrete group, then it makes such philosophy untenable: the living superorganism’s interests and rights must be built into our conception of what is good.
On a more practical note, viewing society as a superorganism may cast light on why the modern world – despite its material prosperity – is failing to deliver purpose and meaning for so many.
There’s a growing medical and psychological literature showing our mental wellbeing, and even our physical health, is derived from being allocated status and given pro-social ends to direct our energies. That is, a need to be a useful part of the superorganism is baked right into our psychological wiring. Those that are allocated status and purpose tend to have a markedly different hormonal profile to those who are not, with the latter ageing faster and being markedly more likely to develop depression, anxiety, heart disease, and even cancer.
The concepts covered above have all come well after Leviathan’s time, so understandably it was not a feature of Hobbes’s philosophy. However, that striking visual metaphor from that book’s front page could not be more apt.
Rather than, as Hobbes suggested, societies being founded on consent, they are founded on something even more ancient and intrinsic to the human condition. We have always been but cells in a much larger body – that is our true state of nature.