As Above, So Below

With the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, Richard Dawkins raised a lively debate about which level of life’s organization is the right one for understanding natural selection. Previously the assumption had been that selection could only be understood to act upon discrete individuals, but Dawkins shook things up by suggesting that selection pressures also determine the reproductive fitness of genes themselves. His idea, initially radically heterodox, is now broadly accepted. Still on the outside looking in is the idea that evolutionary selection also operates at a hierarchical level above the individual organism also, but I think it is just a matter of time until the idea of group-level selection, as persuasively defended by David Sloan Wilson and others, finds general acceptance as well.

Simply put, life is fractal. At our everyday scale, we see each other as individual men and women. Zoom in, and we find that we are systems of interacting organs. Zoom in again, and we see that each organ is a society of cells. Zoom in again, and we see that each cell is, in turn, a system of interacting organelles.

But we can also zoom out beyond the level of the individual animal, and if we do we find that many of the properties of the organism and its subsystems appear here as well. Indeed, for some living things, it’s hard to say just what the “natural” level of organization really is: with ants, for example, the individual is just a tiny, stupid, dispensable machine, while the colony as a whole displays a flexible, emergent intelligence, and draws upon an impressive repertoire of behavior in the pursuit of its “interests”. One could say that the individual ant stands in relation to the colony as the individual neuron stands to the human brain. Is the natural “unit” of the family Formicidae, then, the ant or the colony? (And just what are the sorts of things that can have “interests”?)

Previously I’ve extended this metaphor — the idea of human societies as living organisms — to include the idea of immuno-suppression as a potentially lethal cultural pathology. Now Dennis Mangan, in a thought-provoking post, suggests that as living organisms, cultures may also be strengthened by the biological response known as hormesis.

Read it here.


  1. bob koepp says

    The extension of the notion of hormesis to societies is interesting, but it could have some unintended consequences. In the hands of those for whom social engineering is rationalized as a sort of therapeutic endeavor, it could underwrite a homeopathic approach to curing societal “ills.” Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad thing.

    Posted December 24, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Worked in 1984.

    Posted December 24, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

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