Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH.
The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18:
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.
Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27:
I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom… I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.
Based on these two scriptures, I see the hallmark characteristics of Zion as altruism and unity. On the one hand, that gives us a very general conception of what a Zion society would look like. But on the other hand, that’s really nowhere near enough, from a practical standpoint, to go about building a Zion society. This leaves Mormons in a pickle. We’re under divine direction to build Zion, but we don’t in any real detail, what it’s supposed to look like. How are you supposed to build something, if you don’t even know what it looks like?
That question immediately brought to my mind Nephi’s brief tenure as shipwright:
8. The Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.
9. And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?
10. And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.
Nephi’s dilemma was essentially the same as ours. The Lord told him to build a ship, and he didn’t know how to do that. I found his response illuminating. He didn’t ask for blueprints. He asked for help making tools. This is an entirely different approach from the one anticipated by our question, but as I thought about it, I realized that this is actually a general pattern:
- And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. (1 Nephi 4:6)
- For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little. (Isaiah 28:10)
- Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)
I could go on, but I think this sampling of verses makes the point. The scriptures routinely depict people being asked to build without blueprints, take journeys without maps, and in general get started without knowing how to finish. Tools, not blueprints.
It’s an interesting dichotomy. Blueprints are by their very nature top-down, centralized, and inflexible. Tools, on the other hand, are bottom-up, decentralized, and flexible. One set of blueprints only tells you how to build one model of house, but a set of tools allows you to build all kinds of different buildings. This may seem to contradict the rigid, hierarchical model the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s a topic unto itself, and it’s one I didn’t have time to get into in my presentation. I don’t want to go off on that tangent now, either, but I will simply point out that–worst case scenario–my emphasis on the bottom-up nature of tools vs. blueprints isn’t any more of a problem then, say, D&C 58:27:
Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
There is room for a synthesis of the Church’s concept of authority, keys, and hierarchies with the emphasis on free will and independence.
So then the question becomes: what tools? We know a lot–as a society–about tools for building a truly staggering variety of physical artifacts, but what do we know about building societies? Now, you might think that we know all about building societies since humans are, by definition, social animals. But it turns out that that is exactly the problem. It is because we instinctively build communities and societies that we don’t really have a good awareness of what we’re actually doing. As a comparison, consider how long language existed before we had linguistics. And of course, it’s not as though the presence of linguistics as a field means that we’ve answered all the questions there are to have about language. It just means we’ve started to ask the questions.
Trying to understand the process of language acquisition–both at an individual level as each young human learns to speak and also at a species level as our ancestors developed language for the first time–is an endeavor that calls across a wide range of sophisticated disciplines: neuroscience, statistics, paleontology, and many, many more. Of course this hasn’t stopped use from building a plethora of constructed languages, but we’re still just beginning to understand what we’re doing.
I think we’re probably in a similar place when it comes to crafting societies. Yes, we’ve lived in societies are whole lives (individually and as a species), but that doesn’t mean we know very much about it. I think we’re only starting to develop the tools now (in fields like social psychology, neuroscience, paleontology, game theory, etc.) to begin to understand our nature as ultrasocial animals. In particular, I think that the field of complex systems has a lot to offer here. I didn’t have time to go into it in the paper, and I don’t want to take this tangent either, but my point for now is just to gesture in the direction of the field and say: this is new; this is relevant; this is promising.
So. Let’s talk about superorganisms. A superorganism is an organism made of organisms. Which is the part in my presentation where I was unable to resist an Xzibit joke.
Within the superorganism, the individual organisms can specialize (e.g. worker ants, army ants, and the queen). The individual organisms act together as a whole through distributed intelligence (e.g. ants optimizing routes to food sources), and the superorganism itself exhibits homeostasis and emergence.
Members of superorganisms are ultrasocial. According to Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Happiness Hypothesis, ultrasocial organisms “[live] in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of individuals reap the benefit of an extensive division of labor.” This, then, is the primary benefit of superorganisms: living together in large numbers allows division of labor which in turn allows specialization. And, as Matt Ridley wrote in The Origins of Virtue, “the division of labor is what makes a body worth inventing.” (A body is one kind of superorganism.)
There are steep costs to be paid as well, however. First, there is the coordination problem. In order for the group of individual organisms to function as a cohesive whole, they have to find some way of coordinating their behavior without a centralized, executive authority. This is the part of superorganisms that movies always get wrong. In movies, it’s common to have hive-like bad guys (usually in science fiction, like the Borg) and invariably the scriptwriters end up creating a special member of the hive that acts as the leader, usually the queen. But this completely misses the point of a superorganism, there isn’t a centralized command and control center. Beehives don’t have them. Ant colonies don’t have them. Bodies don’t really have them either, for that matter. (The realization that we have a unified, rational mind exerting executive control over a primarily passive body is one of the great illusions of our time, but that’s another tangent.) But, in order to make the transition from just “a bunch of organisms in close proximity” to superorganism, this coordination problem has to be overcome. One example of how it is overcome, of course, is the famous honeybee waggle dance. Different honeybees do their own dances (showing the location of the pollen they have found), and the closest source tends to get the most dancers, and eventually this popularity contest leads to the entire hive (more or less) heading off in the same direction. There is not leader, but there is coordination.
In addition to the coordination problem, there is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a nutshell: the superorganism needs a way of convincing the constituent organisms to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of the group. In most superorganisms, this is accomplished through genetic similarity. From the perspective of selfish gene theory, a worker ant is willing to forego reproduction because the queen shares a very similar genetic code. That is not a solution in and of itself, however. As Ridley wrote, “your body is only a whole because of elaborate mechanisms to suppress mutiny.” Even though your liver cells are genetically related to your heart cells (for example), the individual liver cells are still their own little organisms with their own imperative to survive at all costs. So, superorganisms tend to rely on genetic similarity and on other constraints to force the individual organisms to sacrifice their own self-interest for the group’s benefit. (Of course this isn’t about the intentions of liver cells, heart cells, or worker ants because they don’t have self-awareness. Instead, it’s about biological incentives in the context of natural selection. The anthropomorphic terminology is useful as long as we keep this caveat in mind.)
Now, here’s the point. If a superoganism figures out how to overcome these hurdles, then the superorganism has achieved two attributes that should be familiar from the very start of our discussion: unity (from overcoming the coordination problem) and altruism (from solving the Prisoner’s dilemma). We’ll return to this point presently.
So I’ve already indicated a few of the classic examples of superorganisms (ant colonies, beehives, and human bodies). There are few more that are pretty cool, including slime molds and the Portuguese man o’ war. Most importantly, however, human societies are superorganisms. Thus Jonathan Haidt: “Beehives and ant nests, with their separate castes of soldiers, scouts, and nursery attendants, are examples of ultrasociality, and so are human societies.” (Emphasis added. Also, I’m equating superorganisms with ultrasociality here, because they are close enough for government work.)
So you can think of a human society as a superorganism. Imagine, for example, a city. There you have thousands or even millions of people who live in close proximity, who practice division of labor, and who therefore specialize. In fact, this specialization is likely the key driving factor of our species’ long climb towards technological prowess, and it correlates with population size: the more we are the smarter we are. Matt Ridley once again, this time from the Wall Street Journal:
An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world’s income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.
By contrast, it’s a fair bet that if you took a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not, you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms, they often get richer.
In this fact lies a vital clue to the nature of the human animal, one that has until recently been overlooked: namely, that what explains the sudden success of the human species over the past 200,000 years is not some breakthrough in individual ability, but rather the cumulative effects of collective enterprise, achieved through trade.
Unfortunately, human ultrasociality is broken. Jonathan Haidt, this time writing in The Righteous Mind, says that “We humans have a dual nature — we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” And later on:
[Religion makes people] feel and act as though they were part of one body,… and brought into play the force of group selection (which shapes individuals to work for the good of their group). But we didn’t make it all the way through the loophole: human nature is a complex mix of preparations for extreme selfishness and extreme altruism.
The human superorganism is flawed.
Now, what would happen if this weren’t the case? What would happen if we were perfectly ultrasocial? Imagine the smallest human society–a husband and wife–who are separated from all other humanity on a dessert island when they get married. In this scenario, the husband and wife would have perfectly aligned interests (genetically speaking) because there would be no possibility of infidelity and no competing requests for resources from other family members. Now, imagine if this scenario was repeated again and again, generation after generation. What kind of relationship would the spouses have?
There would be no falling in love, because there would be no alternative mates to choose among, and falling in love would be a huge waste. You would literally love your mate as yourself, but that’s the point: you don’t really love yourself, except metaphorically; you are yourself. The two of you would be as far as evolution is concerned, one flesh, and your relationship would be governed by mindless physiology… You might feel pain if you observed your mate cut herself, but all the feelings we have about our mates that make a relationship so wonderful when it is working well (and so painful when it is not) would never evolve. Even if a species had them when they took up this way of life, they would be selected out as surely as the eyes of a cave-dwelling fish are selected out, because they would be all cost and no benefit.
This is Steven Pinker quoting from Donald Symons in Pinker’s The Blank Slate.
So, if we were perfectly ultrasocial, we’d have perfect unity and perfect altruism. But we’d lack love, empathy, and individualism.
Which leads me to the conclusion that there must be “opposition in all things” not just on an individual level, but also on a social level. Our brokenness generates growth, individually and collectively. And a Zion with altruism and unity is not enough. We need something like mindful altruism and heterogeneous unity. What I have in mind for mindful altruism is giving as though the other is the self, but not giving to another that is literally part of the self. When ants share resources, that is not sharing anymore than when blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. Zion is something more. And by heterogeneous unity what I have in mind is the ability to find unity on core issues despite tolerating divergence on other issues.
In short: Zion has to be difficult to build in order to be worth having. Which is why I added the subtitle to my talk: Zion, some assembly required.
And, if you’re interested, here’s the video of the actual presentation.