For a time, superorganisms were all the rage. The concept dealt neatly with what Charles Darwin had called the “problem” with social insects. Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed that natural selection worked on individuals and the fittest individuals bred with others similarly fit to their ecological niche, while the less fit were less likely to reproduce. The problem with social insects was that while single termites seem to be individuals, they do not function as such. Only the queen and king of a colony breed, so who was the “individual”? By declaring the whole colony the individual, Wheeler said its members made up “a living whole bent on preserving its moving equilibrium and its integrity”.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, the paradigm of the superorganism grew colossal. Instead of studying individual trees, biologists studied forests as superorganisms. By 1931, the concept snuck into popular culture when Aldous Huxley reportedly based the dictatorship in Brave New World on humans as social insects, with five castes. Wheeler proposed that “trophallaxis” – a word he invented for the way insects regurgitate and share food among themselves – was the secret sauce, the superglue of societies both insect and human, and the foundation of economics. But even during the superorganism’s heyday, Marais was alone in his assertion that the mound had a soul.
Turns out, the mound more or less does have a “soul.”
In Namibia, I went to meet J Scott Turner, an American biologist who has spent decades studying how and why termites build their mounds. It took Turner years of experiments to show that mounds could work a bit like lungs, with interconnected chambers taking advantage of fluctuations in wind speed. Air moves back and forth through the porous dirt skin of the mound by two systems: in big puffs driven by buoyant gases rising from the hot fungus nest (like the sharp intake of breath from the diaphragm), and in small puffs, the way air wheezily diffuses between alveoli in your lungs. Turner suspected that the termites themselves circulated air as they moved, like mobile alveoli. This insight was an entirely new way of thinking about the problem. The mound was not a simple structure where air happened to move, but a continuously morphing complex contraption consisting of dirt and termites together manipulating airflow.
Termites are often compared to architects for the way they build their mounds, but that is misleading because they don’t have plans or a global vision. What they really have is an aesthetic, an innate sense of how things should feel. When the top of the spire was first ripped off, there were just a few termites in the solitary tunnels at the top, probably listening to the clopping of their own six feet. But cutting into the top allowed in lots of fresh air at once, and activated an alarm system. Some termites ran away from the hole, agitating their brothers and sisters so they could help with repairs. Thousands of worker termites followed the smell of fresh air to find the hole, carrying balls of dirt in their mouths…
And so, these days, one scientific metaphor for the inscrutable termite is a neuron in a giant crawling brain. Lisa Margonelli, “A giant crawling brain: the jaw-dropping world of termites” at The Guardian
It’s getting easier to look beyond Darwinism all the time. Turner wasn’t banished on account of his book.
See also: J. Scott Turner on why we do not have a coherent theory of evolution…
Scott Turner hopes for academic freedom for ID theorists
Darwin’s man, Jerry Coyne, brushes off Scott Turner and homeostasis
Ann Gauger’s cautious assessment of Scott Turner’s Purpose & Desire