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Out of Control
Chapter 2: HIVE MIND

Wheeler, the ant pioneer, started calling the bustling cooperation of an insect colony a "superorganism" to clearly distinguish it from the metaphorical use of "organism." He was influenced by a philosophical strain at the turn of the century that saw holistic patterns overlaying the individual behavior of smaller parts. The enterprise of science was on its first steps of a headlong rush into the minute details of physics, biology, and all natural sciences. This pell-mell to reduce wholes to their constituents, seen as the most pragmatic path to understanding the wholes, would continue for the rest of the century and is still the dominant mode of scientific inquiry. Wheeler and colleagues were an essential part of this reductionist perspective, as the 50 Wheeler monographs on specific esoteric ant behaviors testify. But at the same time, Wheeler saw "emergent properties" within the superorganism superseding the resident properties of the collective ants. Wheeler said the superorganism of the hive "emerges" from the mass of ordinary insect organisms. And he meant emergence as science -- a technical, rational explanation -- not mysticism or alchemy.

Wheeler held that this view of emergence was a way to reconcile the reduce-it-to-its parts approach with the see-it-as-a-whole approach. The duality of body/mind or whole/part simply evaporated when holistic behavior lawfully emerged from the limited behaviors of the parts. The specifics of how superstuff emerged from baser parts was very vague in everyone's mind. And still is.

What was clear to Wheeler's group was that emergence was a common natural phenomena. It was related to the ordinary kind of causation in everyday life, the kind where A causes B which causes C, or 2 + 2 = 4. Ordinary causality was invoked by chemists to cover the observation that sulfur atoms plus iron atoms equal iron sulfide molecules. According to fellow philosopher C. Lloyd Morgan, the concept of emergence signaled a different variety of causation. Here 2 + 2 does not equal 4; it does not even surprise with 5. In the logic of emergence, 2 + 2 = apples. "The emergent step, though it may seem more or less saltatory [a leap], is best regarded as a qualitative change of direction, or critical turning-point, in the course of events," writes Morgan in Emergent Evolution, a bold book in 1923. Morgan goes on to quote a verse of Browning poetry which confirms how music emerges from chords:

And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.

We would argue now that it is the complexity of our brains that extracts music from notes, since we presume oak trees can't hear Bach. Yet "Bachness" -- all that invades us when we hear Bach -- is an appropriately poetic image of how a meaningful pattern emerges from musical notes and generic information.

The organization of a tiny honeybee yields a pattern for its tinier one-tenth of a gram of wing cells, tissue, and chitin. The organism of a hive yields integration for its community of worker bees, drones, pollen and brood. The whole 50-pound hive organ emerges with its own identity from the tiny bee parts. The hive possesses much that none of its parts possesses. One speck of a honeybee brain operates with a memory of six days; the hive as a whole operates with a memory of three months, twice as long as the average bee lives.

Ants, too, have hive mind. A colony of ants on the move from one nest site to another exhibits the Kafkaesque underside of emergent control. As hordes of ants break camp and head west, hauling eggs, larva, pupae -- the crown jewels -- in their beaks, other ants of the same colony, patriotic workers, are hauling the trove east again just as fast, while still other workers, perhaps acknowledging conflicting messages, are running one direction and back again completely empty-handed. A typical day at the office. Yet, the ant colony moves. Without any visible decision making at a higher level, it chooses a new nest site, signals workers to begin building, and governs itself.

The marvel of "hive mind" is that no one is in control, and yet an invisible hand governs, a hand that emerges from very dumb members. The marvel is that more is different. To generate a colony organism from a bug organism requires only that the bugs be multiplied so that there are many, many more of them, and that they communicate with each other. At some stage the level of complexity reaches a point where new categories like "colony" can emerge from simple categories of "bug." Colony is inherent in bugness, implies this marvel. Thus, there is nothing to be found in a beehive that is not submerged in a bee. And yet you can search a bee forever with cyclotron and fluoroscope, and you will never find the hive.

This is a universal law of vivisystems: higher-level complexities cannot be inferred by lower-level existences. Nothing -- no computer or mind, no means of mathematics, physics, or philosophy -- can unravel the emergent pattern dissolved in the parts without actually playing it out. Only playing out a hive will tell you if a colony is immixed in a bee. The theorists put it this way: running a system is the quickest, shortest, and only sure method to discern emergent structures latent in it. There are no shortcuts to actually "expressing" a convoluted, nonlinear equation to discover what it does. Too much of its behavior is packed away.

That leads us to wonder what else is packed into the bee that we haven't seen yet? Or what else is packed into the hive that has not yet appeared because there haven't been enough honeybee hives in a row all at once? And for that matter, what is contained in a human that will not emerge until we are all interconnected by wires and politics? The most unexpected things will brew in this bionic hivelike supermind.