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The Superorganism Mindset
Country Manager, Nerdwallet
Good Old Ants!
• Ants are small insects, and thus easy prey for larger
birds or insects. Individually, they also have a limited
ability to forage for food, or to maintain their
• There are specialised functions in an ant colony - the
queen (only to lay eggs, and not to boss around!),
female workers (to do the work!) and males (just for
• However, they are united toward the common purpose
of survival, growth and reproduction. They communicate
with each others using chemicals to hunt or forage for
food or to build nests, etc. The live and work together in
highly organized societies known as colonies.
• Ant colonies living up on a tree might even be protecting
it from predators!
• Smaller ant colonies tend to live faster, die younger and
burn up more energy than their larger counterparts, as
do the individual ants that make up those colonies.
• Contaminated ants might even take “sick days” to
• Why are these individual members of a species
collaborating instead of competing for
• How do they manage to orchestrate their
individual behaviors in favor of a single collective
• Is it limited to some social insects, animals and
birds, or might also apply to humans?
Darwin favored competition!
Then how do we explain intra-
Dawkins favored the selﬁsh
Natural selection favors the passing on of
genes, not the organism itself. Once an
organism has successfully reproduced,
natural selection doesn't care what happens
after.But, what explains altruism among the
“Gene selﬁshness will usually give rise to
selﬁshness in individual behaviour. However,
as we shall see, there are special
circumstances in which a gene can achieve
its own selﬁsh goals best by fostering a
limited form of altruism at the level of
Evolution of Altruistic
“Despite the principle of 'survival of the ﬁttest' the ultimate
criterion which determines whether [a gene] G will spread is
not whether the behavior is to the beneﬁt of the behaver, but
whether it is to the beneﬁt of the gene G ...With altruism this
will happen only if the aﬀected individual is a relative of the
altruist, therefore having an increased chance of carrying the
— W. D. Hamilton, The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior, pp.
Cooperation vs Competition
“In general, when we think about the conﬂict between cooperation and competition in team
sports, we tend to think about the relationships between the players on a team. We care
deeply about their willingness to cooperate and we distinguish cooperative “team players”
from selﬁsh non-team players, complaining about the latter even when their individual skill is
The reason we want players to cooperate is so that they can compete better as a team.
Cooperation at the level of the individual enables eﬀective competition at the level of the
group, and conversely, the competition between teams motivates cooperation between
players. There is a constructive relationship between cooperation and competition when
they operate at diﬀerent levels of organization.
The interplay between levels is a kind of evolutionary process where competition at the team
level improves the cooperation between players. Just as in biological evolution, in organized
team sports there is a process of selection of winners through competition of teams. Over
time, the teams will change how they behave; the less successful teams will emulate
strategies of teams that are doing well.”
Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work
• Coined by James Hutton, The Father of Geology, in 1789 to refer to Earth in the
context of geophysiology. Entomologist William Morton Wheeler in 1911 to
describe ant colonies, which he thought of quite literally as organisms
composed of individual ant “Cells”
• When organisms of diﬀerent species come together to form an ecological unit,
they are known as “holobionts”
• When organisms of same species come together for a common purpose and
behave as if they were a single organism, they accomplish the same tasks as
the individual organism but with far less processing power! They do so by
leveraging the power of “collective intelligence” and “collaborative innovation”
• Initially applied to “eusocial” insects (e.g. ant colony, termites, etc.), but now
more broadly applied to other animals, and even to human groups
• They are able to scale, they don’t create waste, and they live long!
Eusociality (or the good sociality) is the highest
form of sociality, and is deﬁned by the following
• Cooperative brood care
• Overlapping generations
• Reproductive division of labor
Collective intelligence is shared or group intelligence that emerges
from the collaboration, collective eﬀorts, and competition of many
individuals and appears in consensus decision making.
Kleiber's law: for vast majority of animals, an animal's metabolic
rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal's mass.
Self-organization is a set of dynamical mechanisms whereby structures appear at the global level of
a system from interactions among its lower-level components. The rules specifying the interactions
among the system's constituent units are executed on the basis of purely local information, without
reference to the global pattern, which is an emergent property of the system rather than a property
imposed upon the system by an external ordering inﬂuence. For example, the emerging structures in
the case of foraging in ants include spatiotemporally organized networks of pheromone trails.
Self-organization relies on four basic ingredients:
1. Positive feedback reinforces desired behavior, such as when a bee recruits other bees to help
exploit a food source
2. Negative feedback counterbalances positive feedback, such as when bees overcrowd a food
source, which stops them from exploring it
3. Ampliﬁcation of randomness leads to positive reinforcement, such as when bees that get lost
trying to locate a known food source discover new food sources
4. Ampliﬁcation of interactivity has a positive outcome, that is, when insects make positive use of
the results of their own activities as well as those from the activities of other insects.
Swarm Intelligence: Bonabeau et al
• Collaborative innovation networks, e.g.
• Open Source