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Social Psychologist; Professor, New York University Stern School of Business; Author, The Righteous Mind
Contingent Superorganism

Humans are the giraffes of altruism. We're freaks of nature, able (at our best) to achieve ant-like levels of service to the group. We readily join together to create superorganisms, but unlike the eusocial insects, we do it with blatant disregard for kinship, and we do it temporarily, and contingent upon special circumstances (particularly intergroup conflict, as is found in war, sports, and business).

Ever since the publication of G. C. Williams' 1966 classic Adaptation and Natural Selection, biologists have joined with social scientists to form an altruism debunkery society. Any human or animal act that appears altruistic has been explained away as selfishness in disguise, linked ultimately to kin selection (genes help copies of themselves), or reciprocal altruism (agents help only to the extent that they can expect a positive return, including to their reputations).

But in the last few years there's been a growing acceptance of the fact that "Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels," and natural selection operates on multiple levels simultaneously, as Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson put it in their recent book, The Superorganism. Whenever the free-rider problem is solved at one level of the hierarchy, such that individual agents can link their fortunes and live or die as a group, a superorganism is formed. Such "major transitions" are rare in the history of life, but when they have happened, the resulting superorganisms have been wildly successful. (Eukaryotic cells, multicelled organisms, and ant colonies are all examples of such transitions).

Building on Hölldobler and Wilson's work on insect societies, we can define a "contingent superorganism" as a group of people that form a functional unit in which each is willing to sacrifice for the good of the group in order to surmount a challenge or threat, usually from another contingent superorganism. It is the most noble and the most terrifying human ability. It is the secret of successful hive-like organizations, from the hierarchical corporations of the 1950s to the more fluid dot-coms of today. It is the purpose of basic training in the military. It is the reward that makes people want to join fraternities, fire departments, and rock bands. It is the dream of fascism.

Having the term "contingent superorganism" in our cognitive toolkit may help people to overcome 40 years of biological reductionism and gain a more accurate view of human nature, human altruism, and human potential. It can explain our otherwise freakish love of melding ourselves (temporarily, contingently) into something larger than ourselves.