An anthill can be described as a superorganism, with behaviours and interactions much more complex than those of an individual ant. We could find analogies between the superorganism and other living organisms, as memory for instance. Chemicals that ants use to mark paths, could work as a gigant memory for the superorganism.

Multicellular organisms can be seen as superorganisms compounds of many individual cells too.

Among cells, they recognise certain patterns in their surrounding and behave accordingly to play specific roles, that is why most of us have all our body's parts in their place.

Humans, are multicelular organisms that recognise patterns with a different level of complexity and change their behaviour to fit within specific roles in a group of individuals or society.

I'm sure that cells lack the level of comprehension that humans have, which brings me to the question...

Are we part of a more complex superorganism, that we lack the level of conprehencion to identify or even understand?

  • 2
    This question seems a bit broad but I think you provide enough context such that we understand what you are asking and can reasonably provide an answer. One part of your question that vexes me however is: "Among cells, they are more or less, aware what they are and their function, that is the reason why most of us have all our body's parts in their place." I'm pretty sure my cells aren't aware that they are cells, using any definition of awareness I've ever come across, nor would they need to be in order to continue functioning properly. Is a windmill aware that it's a windmill?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 4:51
  • 1
    This definition of awareness can be applied to cells too.
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 13:27
  • 2
    I'm not sure about that... "Awareness is the state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, or sensory patterns." Perhaps with a quite warped interpretation of said wikipedia definition (not the gold standard in philosophy by any measure, btw) you could say that say that awareness is "the ability to feel objects", but this misses what I believe to be a key part of the idea: the recognition that one is perceiving.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 2:12
  • I've changed the question to avoid using definitions like awareness, or consciousness
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 4:18
  • There is a reason why we talk of the 'body politic'. Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 14:25

7 Answers 7


In short, no. At least not under any falsifiable definition of an organism. When biologists refer to a superorganism or an extended phenotype, they aren't referring to a form of life, but the capacity of a species to propagate themselves.

Human systems fail the sniff test for life as well. Societies and organizations cannot replicate themselves by way of copying genes. Nor can they conduct respiration, or synthesize proteins. Most importantly, they are not contiguous, which is an absolutely necessary characteristic of an organism.

Another argument against is that the concept you refer to is self-insulating. It doesn't open itself up to criticism. Like Freudian psychoanalysis, any refusal to believe that one is an adherent to the proposed system could be dismissed as an "unawareness" of participation.

I should add that this does not mean that superorganisms do not exist, but that the sense of the word is entirely non-biologic. It is social. Unless one can make concrete parallels between the biological functioning of living systems and the mechanisms of human society (that is, they function the same without any abstraction from the physical), then it is incorrect to refer to society as a living being.

  • 1
    "Societies and organizations cannot replicate themselves by way of copying genes", could epigenetics suggest that societies imprint themselves in our genes?
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 16:02
  • @rraallvv - No, not in a meaningful sense. We're more likely to have societies imprinting themselves in our genes through selection--against gluten intolerance and for traits conducive to farming, for instance.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 16:27
  • Most importantly, they are not contiguous - at what scale ? when looked from space, humanity resembles mold colony quite a bit. // +1, anyway
    – c69
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 22:30
  • At what scale is contiguity falsifiable? We can say that two objects are materially in contact and be false. Can we be false if two objects can be considered contiguous at any given scale? Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 8:13
  • What about meme-complexes and the memesphere?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 20:24

I think you have to be careful with metaphors. Very careful. Some writers get carried away with their ideas and comparisons and end up committing the error of treating metaphors as if they had formal import per se.

This question is, of course, metaphysical at bottom. For example, one metaphysical position may render the distinction between things is ultimately illusory, further rendering the existence of organisms illusory, at least as we understand them. Some metaphysical positions subordinate individuals to the societies they produce.

However, an Aristotelian metaphysics quite clearly places organisms above the societies they create. Here, individual organisms are defined through a final cause -- an end -- which they seek to realize and actualize. Some of those organisms realize their ends through interaction with other organisms of the same species, forming societies and communities among themselves in order to realize their natures, as it were. Societies are not individual in themselves but a multiplicity of individuals united in varying relations and subordinate metaphysically to the individuals participating in these relations.

The opposite is true when we consider parts of an organism where the parts of an organism are subordinate to the organism of the whole and ordered according to the finality of the organism. In this sense, you cannot speak of superorganisms despite very superficial similarities between the coordination between an organism's parts and cooperation between individuals. There is no being called "society" which has an end in itself, only a community of individuals which is instrumental in relation to the ends of its members.

  • By metaphor if you mean the superorganism/ant description, I don't think it was as such. Check this for example. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 4:21
  • I take the term to be metaphorical i.e. we don't really mean the swarm as a whole is intelligent per se. For those who don't see things this way, I appeal to my argument about metaphysical assumptions. Intelligence requires an intellect, and the swarm is not an intellect, but at best individual intellects coordinating behavior. Superficial comparisons between the coordination of organs carry no substance. But I do see merit in the question as a starting point for metaphysical questions, particularly of the mechanistic variety.
    – danielm
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 18:00
  • @danielm I'm glad you made that asseveration, because that precisely could be the key to the answer. I personaly thing that intellect is an emergent behaviour derived from relatively more simplistic interactions between individual neurones. For instance, each neurone take its inputs, and trigger its output according to a threshold level, that output is the input to one or more neurones. Some outputs are conected to cells that create some chemicals, in turn those chemicals allow neurones to modify the number of connections, or its threshold.
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 18:02
  • (continued) ...There are also feedback loops. After you put a huge number of neurones as in our brain there are some emergent patters, that is what we call intellect.
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 18:03
  • I understand that this is how emergentists try to explain all phenomena. But there are serious problems with the position, not least of which are its mechanism and origin of e. properties. However, it's not necessarily what's at stake here. First off, neurons composing a brain is different than people forming a society. I presume the reason the distinction isn't seen is because of a certain reductionism. But this reductionism would render the universe an organism which would render the notion of organism meaningless. Otherwise, in what way is this superorganism separated from its environment?
    – danielm
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 18:24

David Sloan Wilson addresses your question in his 2002 book, Darwin's Cathedral. He is the developer of multilevel selection theory, where in addition to natural selection at the gene level, and the individual level, he makes the argument that there is also selection at the group level. He addresses the issue of whether human groups can be scientifically considered organismal in the sense that group behavior is a product of evolution that enables the group to survive and reproduce.

Edit: His conclusion is yes, human societies behave as organisms and have adaptations for group fitness.

  • 1
    And when he addresses the question, what conclusion does he reach?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 3:12

Are we part of a more complex superorganism, that we lack the level of comprehension to identify or even understand?

We are part of several systems, some of which might form a separate whole in ways for which we don't have established concepts that we could use for comparison. These systems don't have consciousness in the usual sense, but they have other properties just as indescribable. I think "level of comprehension" or "level of understanding" misses the point, they are just different. It's also important to note that not every organization of humans, ants or other animals automatically forms a separate whole. For example, a separate whole should not draw too much of its identity from the identity of a few of its members. So mathematics is a separate whole, but a political party is normally not.

  • When I refer to the lack of level of comprehension, I'm referring to a situation where we lack the capability of create a mental model or image of the thing. It's as if we try to imagine how would look like a hypercube. For instance in theoretical physicis some phenomena are described by mathematic equations, and corroborated by experimental data, even when most would agree that some observations are counterintuitive at best, and in many cases far beyond our comprehension.
    – rraallvv
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 22:35
  • @rraallvv Your comment confirms that I correctly interpreted what you mean by "level of understanding" (or "lack the capability"/"far beyond our comprehension"). My point when I say "they are just different" is that it is not a power of imagination related thing, but more a "we can't imagine what we can't relate to" related thing. Perhaps I should use a more drastic example than mathematics. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:26
  • Question: "What should a jew in 1944 have done, if he was just arriving with a train in Auschwitz?". Answer: "There was nothing left to do, he should have realized before that thing turned bad, when there was still time to do something." The answer is correct, but we can't understand that, if we don't know who asked that question, why he asked it and who gave the answer. And even if we knew, it would still be challenging to sufficiently relate to that person and understand what the question and answer signified. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:34
  • I often wondered if the organism level of system was held in distinguished regard only because we strongly link our identities to individual organisms.
    – obelia
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 22:24
  • @obelia One point in favor of the organism level is that organisms at least exists in a very concrete sense, similar to planets, cells or atoms. Note that consciousness is not the only "indescribable property" at the organism level. The prototypical example is "color", which is so obviously indescribable that we rarely try to conjecture things like that some "superorganism" could experiences something similar. So I think consciousness is special, because it's less obvious that it is really indescribable. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 0:44

Who, by us, does see?

By cones and rods, we see What they themselves can't see, Hence who, by us, does see What we ourselves can't see?

By hair cells, we hear What they themselves can't hear, Hence who, by us, does hear What we ourselves can't hear?

By corpuscles, we feel What they themselves can't feel, Hence who, by us, does feel What we ourselves can't feel?

Boghos Artinian


I'm taking the question literally: The OP asks behaving as; this means we can only take observable behaviour into account, so we cannot appeal to what it means for an organism to feel in-itself, nor to perceive in-itself, nor to be conscious in-itself.

On that basis, we can certainly say that super-organisms do exist (there is a reason why we talk of the body politic).

But of course, consciousness is the very stuff of life - it shouldn't be left to one-side. Taking that into account then of course super-organisms do not exist (given the physics-based scientific/materialistic metaphysical structure within which we still reside today).

We can speculate: though there aren't any super-organisms in our immediate purview, can we rule them out as entirely impossible, that the laws of nature are against such a monster? We have no actual science of consciousness. Panpsychism posits all matter has a mental aspect: So we are already super-organisms, and so is the chair you are sitting on!

  • If the question is taken literally, it isn't a sensible question. Behavior is only a small, however important, part of the phenotype of an organism. Added to it is that behavior among living systems isn't generalized but varied, and so one would have to ask what type of super-organism humanity behaves as. As a sociological term, super (or social) organism might be valid to express a method for interpreting data, but as a philosophical and scientific term, it lacks rigor. Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 23:54

Are we part of a more complex superorganism, that we lack the level of comprehension to identify or even understand?

This question is self-contradictory and cannot be directly answered.

When we assume that we cannot comprehend X, then every proposition about X is, by our original premise, undecidable.

Another issue is that the set of properties of human beings are not isomorphic to the set of properties of human cells. For example, a human organism survives in Earth's atmosphere whereas a human nerve cell does not. Hence we cannot extrapolate the relationship between an organism and its cells out into the infinity and expect something similar to be there. Especially so when our starting point is that we lack the required capacity to notice it.

A hypothesis can be proven or disproven only if it is internally consistent and falsifiable but a question "Are we part of a more complex superorganism that we cannot understand nor identify?" is neither internally consistent nor falsifiable.

When it comes to anthills and societies, I tend to favor Occam's Razor and suggest emergent behavior.

  • "a human organism survives in Earth's atmosphere whereas a human nerve cell does not. Hence we cannot extrapolate" What does that even mean?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 20:32
  • @CriglCragl I intended it as an example to the idea that the important characteristics of individual cells are fundamentally different from characteristics of individual organisms. I'm not a native speaker.
    – Saul
    Commented Oct 10, 2021 at 19:27
  • That's not true though, with the exception of red blood cells. The 'MRS GREN' (basicbiology.net/biology-101/mrs-gren) list applies to our cells just as to our bodies, because it comes down to harvesting Gibbs Free Energy for both, to maintain order.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 10, 2021 at 23:07
  • @CriglCragl If it were not true then you should be able to find individual human cells inhabiting and navigating the biosphere in the same way as individual human beings. Obviously you can't find any such example. Hence the fact that one cannot expect elements with different characteristics to form larger systems in a similar way.
    – Saul
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 13:42

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