Why superorganism logic is an outstanding value proposition

ShutterstockJaroslav Moravcik

The following is an excerpt of "Teeming: How superorganisms work to build infinite wealth in a finite world (and your company can too" by Tamsin Woolley-Barker, Ph.D (White Cloud Press, 2017).

With apologies to Jane Goodall’s furry colleagues, chimps are just not good people. A friend of mine lost the better part of his hand to a really nasty one and Dr. Goodall herself watched an all-male patrol systematically exacting genocide on the males of a neighboring troop. 

There is a profound difference between us, but genetically, we’re 98 percent alike. If we just nudged the evolutionary clock back the tiniest bit — on every airline passenger, Starbucks customer, coworker and passerby  our societies would dissolve in a horrifying bloodbath. But they don’t. We just board the plane and assume we’ll reach the destination with our hands and ears intact. And for the most part (if you’re on the right airline), we do.

This 2 percent difference delights me and fills me with hope. But what is it, exactly? And why should our companies care?

As an evolutionary biologist and primatologist who spent the last 20 years studying social structures, I believe humanity’s radical breakthrough was combining the political and problem-solving abilities of a chimpanzee with the collaborative teamwork of an ant society. Our ancestors were the first ant-like apes, and in many ways we have more in common with the termites and honeybees and fungus than with our powerfully individualistic ape brethren.

As humans, everything we do requires collaboration — every action ripples through our 7-billion-person human family. Like ants, we expect our fellow simians (mostly strangers) to coordinate with us — and reasonably politely. We drive on one side of the street, stop at signs and stay in our lane (well, not equally well in all parts of the world). In my neighborhood, we wait patiently for our lattés, and pretty much everywhere we hold the door open for others, say please and thank you and excuse me. 

But if for one second, you remember — as I always do — that we are 98 percent chimpanzee, you will find these good manners extraordinary. Our dominance hierarchies persist, but only sociopaths and despots exert them openly. Most of us just gossip and keep track of each other’s reputations for being good citizens, taking no more than our fair share, doing our part, taking care of others and caring how they feel. That’s really weird for an ape — for almost any species, really.

Yes, we’re still apes — political, short-sighted and self-serving, but loving and imaginative, too. Our social systems are strange: We are also like responsible honeybees, filled with obligation and civic duty; industrious ants, moving earth and tending gardens; DIY paper wasps, driven by the urge to make; and densely networked fungi, pulsing through digital webs to come together to support all kinds of teeming ecosystems. Like these other superorganisms, we nurture our collective future together. We are superorganisms too. And yet, we still manage our companies like apes! No wonder so many of us hate our jobs!

I believe we have all the ingredients we need to succeed, just as the ants and termites before us. If we honestly acknowledge and embrace both the ant and the ape at work in us, and work to leverage our natural social mechanics, I believe we can evolve the adaptive, resilient and regenerative organizations we require in our global economy. We can design our companies to leverage our natural methods of working together. Superorganism logic is an outstanding value proposition for any company, and it is vital for collaborating at scale.

Superorganisms make stone soup together, just like the old fable. A hungry stranger enters a starving village and knocks on doors to beg for a meal. People hide in their homes, miserable behind closed doors, hoarding their tiny scraps in their cupboards. Finally, the stranger makes a fire in the town square, takes a pot from his pack and puts some water on to boil. Then he adds a simple stone. Before long, some curious children come to see what he’s doing.

"I’m making stone soup," he says. "You’re welcome to join me. But it does need a little something."

The children begin to bring little things — an old potato, a shriveled carrot. Some parents come too, and soon, a delicious aroma wafts from the pot. More reluctant villagers eye the growing crowd suspiciously from their windows, but they too can smell the soup. They join in, adding bits of dried sage and salt. Things get competitive — someone busts out a squawking chicken and all the neighbors cheer. An old man pulls out a fiddle and a woman brings a dusty bottle. All who shared eat, everyone who trusted is full. Singing and dancing break out round the fire and conversation runs deep into the night.

What else can they make together?

This is how superorganisms thrive in landscapes of scarcity that exclude other species. Ants teem in the deserts of Australia, termites rule the parched Kalahari. Naked mole rats push dirt around Somalia as we speak. These creatures succeed by pooling tiny scraps of value that aren’t worth the effort for other creatures: shattered splinters of wood, bits of chopped up leaves, specks of pollen, molecules of water and fertilizer. In this way, together, superorganisms accumulate great wealth.

All living things are driven to nurture the next generation for success. That, at its core, is the nature of value, and we’ve all inherited a talent for creating it. Four billion years of our ancestors have done it before us, and the drive to make more for the future runs deep. But for superorganisms, this is not just a personal endeavor, it’s a collective one. The future belongs to all our children, not just our own. In fact, most ants are sterile, but work tirelessly for colony success nonetheless. It takes a village. Human "survival of the fittest" is not a dog-eat-dog proposition.

Ultimately, corporate success isn’t either. It can’t be.

Publicly traded companies have a mandate to grow, but everyone — besides madmen and economists — knows you can’t grow forever on a finite planet. As long as interest compounds faster than trees, we’ll turn every living thing into money until nothing’s left. But stepping off this treadmill will wreak economic devastation. Is there is no hope for us? 

Garrett Hardin’s famous "Tragedy of the Commons" model says no: the simple math of selfishness offers no hope. And yet there are 2,400-year-old termite mounds in the Congo and a humongous fungus in Oregon over 8,500 years old. Termites have worked together for 250 million years, and the fungus for half a billion, growing from one generation to the next, sharing and regenerating their resource base. These societies are as close to immortal as living things get. 

And these ancient societies don’t have small footprints, either. Like us, ants and termites adjust the world around them, building air-conditioned homes, cultivating crops, herding and milking domestic animals and working together in teeming colonies with hundreds of thousands — even millions — of individuals, most of them strangers. And yet, they aren’t drowning in their own plastic waste or choking on the air they exhale. All the ants on Earth are roughly equal to us in biomass and metabolic needs, and the termites weigh 27 times that, but none of them are sitting in traffic or worrying about the Pacific Garbage Patch. If these creatures can live well and thrive, why can’t we? How do they defy the limits of a finite world to grow value so infinitely? What’s the secret to their success?

Here is the simple difference: ancient superorganisms build their compounding wealth on virtually infinite things — sunlight and carbon, diffuse specks of water and nutrients, trust and transparency and the complexity, diversity and interconnectedness of networks. There are always more of these things. Their organizations are no pyramid scheme. There is virtually no hierarchy or top-down management and no one tells anyone what to do. Information and resources are shared and teams grow from the edges out, in modular, self-managed units that form and dissolve around opportunity and risk when and where it occurs.

This approach maximally leverages diverse individual talents and experiences, allowing these organizations to reap the exponential rewards of collective intelligence and swarm creativity and accomplish the same kinds of tasks we do with minimal central processing power. And they work the same way at any scale — they never restructure, just fission and fuse on the fly.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, superorganisms spill the value they create out into the larger ecosystems they inhabit, feeding the life that feeds them. Fungal networks feed the forests, termites fertilize the grass around their mounds, drawing herbivores that feed carnivores and enrich the soil with their carcasses and dung, growing more and better grass. They have to do this because regeneration is how they compound value in a finite world.

Hundreds of millions of years of natural selection have shaped these corporate strategies. By focusing systematically on shared purpose, building with infinite stuff and spilling their collective value into the larger ecosystem, superorganisms compound their wealth from generation to generation, wasting no time on meetings and politics. It’s the closest thing to a recipe for infinite growth.

Companies can consciously apply these patterns to achieve their own regenerative success in concrete ways. There are many companies already doing it and the steps are simple algorithms, easily implemented, with proven results. It may seem like a radically new way to do business, but I don’t think it will actually that hard to switch to it. We are superorganisms too, after all. This way of working feels natural to us. It’s the way we like to work and the way we work best. It’s easy to re-imagine companies as regenerative platforms for collective value creation, nurtured and cared for by our distributed, self-organized contributions. We work this way in our families and communities — why not in our organizations?

Superorganism value is enduring and the simple principles they use to create it can change the world. They already have many times in the history of Earth. I know they can change it again. Superorganism logic is proven, and feels right to us — our biology prevails where our politics fail. The future may be uncertain, but there are millions of ancient and implacable mentors to show us the way.

We have all the ingredients we need to make great stone soup together. This is the 2 percent difference! Let’s get cooking!

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