When I think of monkeys, I don’t think of them living in the desert, namely because primates love trees, water, big juicy leaves, and fruit. In fact, only two primates have even bothered to go there, and the Hamadryas baboon is the first. With a magnificent white mane, scarlet face, and bizarrely complex social system, he was a sacred muse of the ancient Egyptians; in the afterlife, it fell upon his regal mantle to devour the souls of the dead that were deemed “unrighteous”—serious stuff! The other primate is us. Both are supreme collaborators, and wherever resources are scarce and unpredictable, the most successful creatures are those who work as a team. That type of collaboration is the skill that we’re going to explore in today’s entry of The Biomimicry Manual!
The ants and termites that make their homes in the desert are all ultra-social, spending their days coordinating carefully to build elaborate mounds and nests, farm fungus, herd aphids, and work together in busy cities—much like we do. Biologists refer to all of us as “super-organisms”; groups where individuals don’t survive alone for long, everyone has a job to do, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Humans and ants must collaborate in order to survive: it’s in our nature. But people have only been noodling around this super-organismic experiment for a couple million years. Our societies are downright facile next to those of ants, who have been doing so for over 100 million years. Mycelial fungi, living underground in a pulsing web of interconnected hyphae, have us all beat: they’ve been doing it for more than a billion years. As resources get scarcer, and prices, supply chains, geopolitics, and climates less predictable, we’d be well-advised to study our elder ultra-socialites. Can we figure out their evolutionary math, and make it work for our own way of life?
Humans do surprisingly well just about anywhere. Conditions of scarcity and unpredictability have never bothered us too much, as long as we have shelter, tools, knowledge, and each other. We’ve made it through some savagely icy geological patches this way—pretty impressive considering our fur-less, fang-less state. (And on just two legs? How inherently non-resilient! Lose one and you’re a monopod!) But somehow, together, we made it through. Ever since Homo erectus was competing successfully against professional carnivores like lions and hyenas (without sharp claws, pointy canines, speed, or protective fur), we’ve been a super-organism society. We did it by collaborating; with tools and signals, persistence, and experience. Together, we searched for beehives, dug for water, and remembered where last year’s best roots and berries were found.
And it worked. Today, Homo sapiens occupies every landmass on Earth, altering every habitat we touch. I’m sure the other species would add us to the Most Invasive List if they could, but why aren’t ants choking on smog or stuck in traffic? Why aren’t the fungi counting carbon credits and worrying about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Do termites have slums? What do they know that we don’t?
It’s my job to try and find out: I’m an Inter-species Innovation Translator. I discover how other species do things, and help non-biologists use those ideas to do things differently. After all, 30 million species have spent billions of years coming up with ways to make a living on this planet, solving exactly the same problems we have. If their solutions aren’t sustainable, they evolve or fall by the wayside. So, when I need advice on thorny social issues, I ask the professionals: Ants, termites, wasps, honeybees, mycelial fungi, and naked mole rats are successful because they divide up their tasks to form an amoeba-like entity that acts like a single, super-powered creature. All have fantastically complex levels of communication, flexibility, efficiency, and organization. In the words of mycologist Paul Stamets, they are “networked creatures.” They have a startling advantage over other species.
Super-organisms can be wildly successful, sometimes too much—14 of the Top 100 Invasive Species (including fire ants, yellowjackets, and Argentine ants) are super-organisms. But look what happens when the program runs long: after a billion years, we have mycelial fungi, so networked that their very bodies form an underground internet. They don’t just use it for themselves, either; they use it to bring nutrients, water, and signals to 70 percent of the vascular plants. They are actively supporting, if not farming, a vast proportion of our planet’s food base, while acting as a global internet for them—the Wood Wide Web, as Janine Benyus calls it.
Of course, the fungi took a billion years to evolve their societies, and that kind of time is something we don’t have. Summers get hotter, polar vortices fiercer, and hurricanes and floods and droughts more severe. Can we figure this out quick enough? The global petro-industrial machine and its endless array of perverse wealth incentives keep us circling intractably around a drain of our own making. As my friend Dr. Jamie Brown-Hansen says, as long as trees grow more slowly than interest compounds, we’ll keep turning living things into money until there’s nothing left. Sounds like an easy fix.
But even though we’re rookies in the Networked Creature Club, we humans learn fast: that’s what super-organisms do. That’s why people and ants run rampant over this planet so handily. Every living ant, if you tied them up together in a colossal Santa sack, would weigh about the same as every living person tied up in another sack. Together, those two sacks weigh 16 times more than a sack of all the other land-dwelling wild vertebrates combined. So I guess we’re doing something right. And humans have a couple of innovation-acceleration tricks that ants don’t have (I’m not so sure about fungi, and how much do you think their sack weighs?). First, we aren’t limited to plain, vanilla genetic adaption, one plodding generation at a time. We can pass our innovations sideways, behind the back, over the head, and take it to the hoop; from friends to neighbors to people we don’t even know. Human ideas transcend generations, borders, religions, and even species. We have a powerful ability to innovate new things and imitate what works. It’s fast, it’s viral, and we’re getting there. If we can understand the simple rules that other super-organisms use to create their adaptive networks, I believe we can use them too, and get the quick change we need. Already, we’ve worked out our own mycelial fungal webs and ant-pheromone trails. With internet and cellular networks in place, we are already doing business like they do.
Our second advantage is what corporate cultural anthropologist Robin Sol calls “what-iferousness”—an ability to imagine what could be, and make it so. If we imagine it, we can reverse-engineer it. That’s what people do. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, but often, we get exactly where we need to be. I like to imagine that the ancient fungi, after discovering the super-organismic way of life, might have gone down the same kinds of rabbit-holes we’re in today. And just like us, they wreaked untold havoc on every ecosystem they touched as they spread. Today, however, these disruptive innovators provide life support for all us Earthlings- because somewhere along the line, they discovered that by helping others, they helped themselves. I like to think we are discovering that too. And if we can imagine it, we can make it so.
Tamsin is hard at work on a book about super-organisms and human collaboration, and you can help make it a reality by pre-ordering or supporting her on Kickstarter through November 25, 2014.