Superorganisms – Ant Nests and Human Religions

 “Worker ants of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your fertility. The highly specialized worker castes in ants represent the pinnacle of social organization in the insect world. As in any society, however, ant colonies are filled with internal strife and conflict. So what binds them together? More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin had an idea and now he’s been proven right…

“The existence of sterile castes of ants tormented Charles Darwin as he was formulating his Theory of Natural Selection, and he described them as the ‘one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my theory.’ If adaptive evolution unfolds by differential survival of individuals, how can individuals incapable of passing on their genes possibly evolve and persist?

“Darwin proposed that in the case of ant societies natural selection applies not only to the individual, because the individual would never benefit by cutting its own reproduction, but also to the family or group. This study supports Darwin’s prescient ideas, and provides a molecular measure of how an entire colony can be viewed as a single or ‘superorganism.'” [Q]

“A study published by researchers at Yeshiva University and its medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, strongly suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20 percent…

“The protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption.”[R]

These two examples show how the crude Darwinism of characters like Professor Dawkins is simply wrong. We do not exist just as individuals. Nor are human societies ‘superorganism’ in the way ant colonies probably are. Humans are exceptional among mammals in forming permanent communities in which most adults have children: the norm is for breeding to be confined to a dominant pair or one or more dominant males. And yet the ‘alpha male’ impulses are still part of our make-up.

Religion is one way of balancing the conflicting impulses. Socialism has acted as a viable alternative, but hasn’t sufficiently understood the needs of a ‘super-organism’ that is also composed of individuals who might do OK on their own. Religion was viewed just as superstition, rather than one of humanity’s basic needs.

[Q] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081119122634.htm]

[R] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081119174230.htm]

From Newsnotes, December 2008.

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