Humans have indisputably dominated our planet and most of its other species. How? I believe the most fundamentally useful human capacity is that of creating imagined communities. I like to call them “macroorganisms” because I see a strong analogy that compares how these communities function and how individual organisms function.
Let us consider the story of evolution (my favorite thing to do). For 3 billion years (about 3/4 of the time life has existed on Earth), the only life on our planet were single-celled organisms floating in the oceans. Then something amazing happened. The cells started to work in groups and form relationships in which each would specialize in a particular function and rely on the other cells for the other necessary life functions. This was multi-cellular life and it was a big deal. Within a relatively minuscule amount of time, the oceans were full of incredibly diverse organisms of every size! This period of time is called the Cambrian Explosion because of the tremendous rate of growth in numbers of species and their capacities. With this new teamwork based formula for living, life was able to do previously impossible things! Never before had life forms had pincers, not to mention eyes, shells, digestive systems, and millions of other traits!
Now let us return to the individual human. An individual human can do a lot of impressive things. But throw a typical American out into the wild with no human-made resources, and it won’t last very long. That’s because humans didn’t evolve individual survival skills and traits like most of the other species. Instead we went multi-organismal, just like in the Cambrian Explosion, and our capacities to use, and protect ourselves from, the environment around us increased explosively. There are humans who may be able to hunt and gather and survive alone in the wilderness, but only groups of humans working in harmony are able to extract materials from deep in the Earth, launch rockets into space, put on a play, or invent math.
So, what are these macroorganisms and how do they work? First of all, they are organized in the human mind, so they do not have spatial limitations like regular organisms do. Thus any human can be a member of many macroorganisms at once and can create a new one at any time. Examples of macroorganisms are:
- sports teams
- a book club
Also, macroorganisms are organized in a fractaline structure, just like individual organisms, and in fact they are simply further iterations of the same fractal. In an individual organism, specialized cells are organized into specialized tissues, which are organized into specialized organs, which are organized into the full organism. Let us also remember that we can go in the other direction and say that cells are organized groups of specialized organelles, which are organized groups of specialized molecules, which are organized groups of specialized atoms, which are organized groups of specialized sub-atomic particles. We don’t know if the fractal keeps going, but so far, everything that seems to exist has been shown to emerge from the organized interconnectedness of a group of smaller parts, and I don’t think that implies that there must be a smallest part.
So, a macroorganism emerges from the organized interconnectedness of any group of humans. This allows us not only to use our bodies for more and more complex tasks, but also our minds. Living in macroorganization has allowed us to practice collective learning, so we don’t all have to start from scratch. The phenomenon of collective learning also started an explosive new branch of evolution: the evolution of ideas. Ideas can evolve much faster than organisms, and instead of competing for food, they compete for attention.
Our membership in some macroorganisms is more obvious than others. For example, most people are aware of their participation in their family or their company, but they may not be particularly aware of their participation as a consumer in the Costco macroorganism, or that they rely of thousands of laborers all over the country and the world to provide things we would otherwise have to make ourselves, like clothing, food, and shelter. It’s hard to participate without knowing it at all, but we often don’t register all of the groups we are a part of. However, if our choices and behaviors affect others’ choices and behaviors in the group, then we are participating.
It can also be more or less obvious what one’s particular role or specialization each group is. When we come to understand how we can optimize our specialties and maximize our contribution to the macroorganism we are participating in, the macroorganism benefits, and each individual benefits as a result (just like an individual organism and its cells). To refuse to contribute but to continue to rely on the other members of the group for resources is to be a cancerous cell.
In summary, make pro-social choices because these choices have historically been the key to human success.