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
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
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
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
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.