|San José State University|
& Tornado Alley
The word superorganism was coined in the 19th century by Herbert Spencer to apply to social organizations. Strictly speaking a superorganism is an organism that is composed of other organisms. In the human context that would mean social organizations, but the concept has a broader application. Two organisms that exist is a symbiotic arrangement and perhaps could not survive without the partner would be a superorganism. The South African biologist Eugene Marais carried the concept even farther. He argued that the termite colony is the living creature; the individual termites are essentially the same as the red blood corpuscles in animals. It is best to let Marais himself state the case. Here is an excerpt from his book The Soul of the White Ant:
THE COMPOSITE ANIMAL
THE division group soul in our classification of psychological movements is one which the human mind finds most difficult to understand. The further we depart from our own psychological characteristics, the more mystified and puzzled do we become, and the true group soul is the opposite extreme to the psyche, i.e. of the primate, which consists of uninhibited, individual causal memory of the environment. The most perfect example of the group soul can be observed in our own bodies. The human body is composed of a number of organs, each connected by a visible or invisible thread to the central point, the brain. Each organ is in constant activity and has a separate purpose � at least the purpose appears to be separate and independent ; but on closer observation we find that all the organs are really working for a communal purpose. The influence dominating all the organs comes from one central point. In no single organ can we find a real independent purpose. After the composite physical body of a highly developed animal like man, there is no better example of the functioning of a group soul than the termitary I am now entering a province which will tax your credulity to the utmost, so I will go slowly step by step, making certain of one before we take the next. I promise that I will make no statement which cannot be proved experimentally and, when the facts appear too wonderful and incredible, I will tell you the experiments in order to enable you to repeat them and perhaps even improve on them.
In everyone who carefully observes the termite, the question is bound to arise, ` Why do they continue working? What is the mainspring of this restless activity? Restless it is indeed. Do you know that of equally developed creatures the termite is the only one which apparently never rests or sleeps? However carefully you observe it, you will never surprise the termite at rest or asleep. What is the aim of this ceaseless toil and struggle? In other individual animals nature has planted great irresistible urges, the sexual and parental urge, the urge to defence, the urge for food and drink. These urges constitute the psyche of the individual and dominate its movements. In the individual termite there are none of these urges to act as a driving force. The answers to these questions really constitute the definition of a true group soul. In order to be perfectly clear I will give my line of investigation in the form of theses.
- 1. All the movements of the termite are controlled from without the individual. The termite possesses no vestige of free will, or power of choice. The only quality it possesses is automobility-power of moving itself. It puts itself into motion, but when this motion will take place or what will be done with it, is decided, controlled from without. Circumstances may render the termite's work useless and vain ; in cases where the simplest insect individually controlled would shrink from its destiny the termite must carry on. It must follow the path along which the unseen arbiter of its fate urges it to go.
- 2. The whole behaviour of the termite is determined from without by an influence we may call it a thread by which he is firmly tied to the queen's cell. This invisible influence streams from the organism of the queen alone. It is a power beyond our senses ; it can penetrate all material barriers, even such as thin steel or iron plates.
- 3. Distance lessens the influence : it has power only between fixed limits.
- 4. The somatic death of the queen destroys the influence immediately. Injuries and wounds sustained by the queen weaken the influence in proportion to the size of the injury.
- 5. The termitary is a separate composite animal at a certain stage of development, and lack of automobility alone differentiates it from other such animals.
- 6. The termite has descended from an ordinary flying solitary insect. The development of specialized groups and their amalgamation is a late occurrence in the race-history of the termite.
- 7. The termitary is an example of the method in which composite and highly developed animals like the mammals came into being.
- 8. The body of a mammal with its many vital organs can be looked upon as a community with specialized individuals grouped into organs, the whole community forming the composite animal. The higher the development of the animal, the higher the specialization of the groups.
- 9. This phenomenon of specialized groups of individuals being developed into different organs and becoming a composite animal can actually be observed to-day in nature.
The group soul, which is surely the most amazing psychological phenomenon in the natural world and gives the strongest proof that it may be possible for a psychological influence to have effect on an organism at a distance, is the result of this communal life. It is important therefore that we should observe the composite organism and try to understand it. The particular kind of termite on which I based these observations is one of the most common, in South Africa, and everyone will be able to study it.
If you make a breach in any termite's nest on the veld, it will in all likelihood be the nest of the kind of which I am speaking. In the breach you will see two kinds of insects, differing so greatly from each other that if you know nothing of termites it will take a great deal to convince you that they had the same mother and father. One is an ordinary whitish insect with strong jaws, and two black spots which appear to be eyes. The other, under a magnifying glass, looks like a nightmarish monster. It is reddish yellow in colour, but when many are massed together the red colour becomes dominant. The body ends in a massive triangular head tapering to a long black hornlike needle or syringe. Below the neck there are four almost rudimentary legs in addition to the other ordinary functioning legs. with a large reservoir of fluid. In your wildest imagination you could not create a creature more This needle or syringe is in direct conmmnication totally cut off from the outside world. Except its two antenna, there is no trace or sign of any organ of sense. How and what the creature eats is a riddle. The only possible food would have to be a thin fluid. The ordinary food which is carried into the nest must have undergone a great change in the bodies of the other termites before this horned beast could make use of it. It is not necessary for our purpose to theorize about all the probable functions of these insects. With a fairly powerful magnifying glass you will see at once that the behaviour of these two kinds of termites in the breach is not identical. The syringe-bearers throng in increasing numbers and, with their syringes pointing outwards, quickly form a ring round the opening. If you tease one of these termites with a stiff bristle, a kind of convulsive movement passes over it, while it makes a stabbing movement with its weapon in all directions. Eventually a crystal clear drop of sticky fluid appears at the end of the syringe. This fluid contains a certain amount of stinging acid. There can be no doubt that these syringe-bearers are there to defend the nest against the enemy, relying on their terrifying appearance as well as their weapons. Apart from this they do nothing. Protected by this cordon of defenders, the other termites begin working busily. They begin to mend the breach, or to heal the wound. From the depths of the termitary, each appears carrying a tiny grain of sand or earth irl its jaws. With the help of similar rudimentary legs as those described in the syringe-bearers, the grain is turned about rapidly. Under the microscope you will find that the object of this is to coat it with a similar sticky fluid. It is then fastened to some section of the wound. It cannot fall. If you touch the newly built section, your fingers become sticky, as if you had touched some syrup. This fluid has the property of evaporating very rapidly, and as soon as evaporation has taken place the stickiness disappears.
One of my theses was that the termitary is a separate and perfect animal, which lacks only the power of moving from place to place. I will give you my proofs of this little by little, and the explanation will make clear at the same time the beginning and development of the group soul. Up to now you have learnt what happens in a wounded termitary. Let us turn our attention for a moment to a far more developed composite organism before we return to the termitary.
I take for granted that you have a general idea of the construction of your own body and how that machine works. You know that your body consists of millions of cells, through which there is constantly flowing a fluid which we term blood. The fluid consists chiefly of two separate kinds of organism, red and white corpuscles, each of which is a living cell having a life or soul of its own as well as a group soul. These corpuscles build up the body, mend wounds and attack invading germs. Metchnikoff's conclusions in this connexion, although doubtful in certain respects, are nevertheless true in their general lines.
The attacking microbes are themselves attacked and devoured in the wound or in the natural orifices, or, if they succeed in entering, the fight is carried on in the cells and passages. Every wound swarms with defending white corpuscles. If a germ of disease enters the system there is an even leucocytosis or increase of white corpuscles. Both growth and healing always take place from within outwards. Covering the vital organs we have the epidermis or skin, a tough impenetrable covering which shuts out light and air. The corpuscles of the blood are afraid of air and light. The growth of the body is more wonderful and mysterious than we realize. We are far too prone to consider every ordinary natural phenomenon as a kind of axiom which needs no explanation, like, for instance, the fall of an apple to the ground. Just consider for a moment the growth of the body, with particular reference to the skin. Growth always takes place from within outward. But we do not find a piece of skin being removed, a piece of an organ being built, and then a new skin being grown over the wound. The growth takes place under the skin. You would be justified in expecting either that the skin should stretch or that a new piece of the body should be grown on top of the old skin and then a new skin over that, so that if you cut into the body you would find layers of old skin. Neither of these things happen. Well, you say, of course the skin grows in the same way that the internal parts grow. It is easy to say this, but we cannot find any proof of it. We know that all growth is caused by the corpuscles in the blood-stream. But we know that these corpuscles never come in contact with the dermis or outer skin. how this outer skin grows at the same rate as the other organs we cannot explain. You know, too, that your body consists of several large organs, each of which functions independently. According to our classification each of these is a separate animal with a separate psyche. Then you have another organ which is the home of the group soul the brain�the centre of the community which is the body.
You have learnt by this time that soul and life are identical. Every definition for soul will be equally as good for life, and vice versa. I have never observed any occurrence which tended to prove that soul and life were two separate entities. They are one and the same. The only difference lies in the two names, which have been given to the same thing.
A small injury to the central point, the brain, is sufficient to cause immediate death of the whole body. The growth and life of the body can continue only with the help of the red and white corpuscles of the blood. Food is taken through a foramen, the mouth, and, after being changed or digested by certain organs, is absorbed by the corpuscles. Ninety per cent. of this food is carried to different parts of the body and used as cells to make new muscle, sinews and bone. A portion of the food consists of inassimilable material, but this must be absorbed by the corpuscles with that which is assimilable, because it forms part of the assimilable material. Within their own bodies, the corpuscles separate the assimilable and inassimilable, and the waste is eventually cast from the body as excreta. I have just said that a small injury of the brain is sufficient to cause the death of the body. Let us study some of the peculiar and mysterious aspects of the condition we call death. We know that a living person can remain in water for ten days without any part of his skin dissolving. The channel swimmers stay in the sea for twenty-four hours and their skin is quite undamaged by this immersion. Water cannot wash away any part of the living skin, in fact the skin of a living man is as insoluble in water as india-rubber. The whole body of a living person is full of elasticity and possesses a great power of resistance to blows of blunt objects. Remember these two characteristics :
- 1 . Insolubility of the skin.
- 2. The general touch-resisting powers and the elasticity of the whole living body.
The change which takes place in these two respects after death is astounding. Have you ever seen a drowned man who has been in the water for some hours? You will remember the gruesome change. What has caused this? As soon as life ends, the epidermis becomes more and more soluble in water ; and the body immediately begins to lose its elasticity and power of resistance, until at last even a child could poke a blunt object right through the body. To put it baldly, every part becomes spongy and falls into decay. The physiologist expresses all this differently, generally in long Latin or Greek words, but the meaning remains unchanged. He says : As soon as death has taken place, the more complex components break up into simpler ones. Microbes appear, to hasten the process. This does not help us to understand things more clearly, for the following reasons
The body consists largely of dead matter. All the cell walls and the outer skin are made up of ordinary dead matter�or chemical substances. What do the corpuscles do to prevent the solubility of the skin and to protect the elasticity and structure of the body? No one knows. The presence or absence of the corpuscles makes this vast difference. You have heard doubtless of a certain mysterious phenomenon in chemistry �how the mere presence of one element can change the chemical make-up of another element. The same kind of function is played by the living corpuscles in the blood-stream. This secret inexplicable influence, which their mere presence has on the chemical and physical character of dead matter, is the mystery of life. In the simplest living cell, such as the blood corpuscle, we find something which not only enables it to move, but which also prevents the breaking up of the cell material. Antagonistic forces of nature are always present ready to break up the cell. Here we find the beginning of the struggle for life --the attempt to frustrate the inimical forces of nature. The first purpose or urge is a tug of war between the life or soul and matter. This influence at a distance of certain substances specially secreted by the body for this purpose is a well-known biological phenomenon.
The human body possesses a number of ductless glands, whose function it is to produce certain secretions. The mere presence of these secretions exercises a great influence on the whole physical make-up. The adrenal glands for instance produce a substance, adrenaline, which is responsible, amongst other things, for the blood pressure. The gland itself is completely isolated from the rest of the body and yet has this influence at a distance.
After this lesson in physiology and biology, we can now return to study the termitary in the light of our new knowledge. You may wonder how I can call a heap of dead earth like the termitary a living animal. Do not forget that the termitary is no more dead than the dead matter of cell walls which constitutes nine-tenths of your own body. We are ourselves no more than dead termitaries, through which circulates a living substance.
If you destroy a termitary you find firstly a tough resistant skin all around it. Under this skin you find that the whole termitary consists of cells through which a living stream constantly circulates. As you go deeper you find large passages and eventually a hollow, partly or entirely filled with more cells, which are of a different consistency from those of the actual heap. These cells no longer consist of earth and are covered within and without with a kind of mould. This mould is often used in South Africa to make yeast. If you go deep enough and observe carefully you will find at the very bottom a passage which goes right into the earth. I f the termitary is an old one and placed on top of a dry kopje or hill, this passage descends to an incredible depth. It is the canal by which the termites get their water supply. They continue the shaft until at last they reach permanently moist ground. On the farm Rietfontein in Waterberg I had the opportunity of following such a passage to a depth of more than 57 feet through earth as hard as rock in the side of a mine pit. The termites need a great deal of moisture. More than ninety per cf at. of their tiny bodies consists of water, and the whole termitary is always damp and filled with water vapour. Where they managed to get all this moisture in our dry districts would have remained a dark secret if someone had not discovered the existence of the deep vertical aqueduct.
IN an earlier chapter I drew attention to some of the effects on the human body of somatic death.
The final result may be expressed as follows : The chemical constituents of the cell walls of organic material are very unstable. In ordinary circumstances they tend to break down into simpler elements, or else new and more stable combinations take place. The final result is that organic matter as such disappears. The coherence of these unstable constituents is maintained by the mere presence of living moving matter in the vicinity of the cell walls. I used the example, for a special purpose, of the common phenomenon which occurs after death, the solubility of the human skin in water, and I emphasized the fact that although the living elements in the blood-stream, which heal the skin and keep it healthy, do not actually come into contact with the outer skin, yet their mere presence iii the vicinity is sufficient to maintain the stability of the unstable components. In other words, the presence of these living elements safeguards the skin against its ever-present tendency towards dissolution. This is the first function of what we call life or soul.
One can always tell by superficial examination whether a termitary is alive or dead. In general the process of dissolution is not only analogous to the dissolution which takes place in the human body, but it is also similar. We find exactly the same appearance of undisguised lifelessness ; there is the same change in smell, not the same smell, ascribable to the same causes, namely the dissolution of chemical constituents ; there is the same immediate loss of the defensive toughness of the skin. The innermost cell-structure falls to pieces, only dust and ashes remain.
The similarity of the two phenomena becomes even more convincing if you examine the termitary in detail. Look at the skin. The covering layer of an old termitary in dry seasons is thick and impenetrable, hard as cement. After long rain it becomes softer, in the same way that human skin becomes softer after long immersion in water. The living stream of termites constantly circulating through the termitary never comes into contact with the outer skin. The termites never renew the skin from the outside. Sometimes you see patches of renewal. The growth or healing, as the case may be, always occurs from within outwards, as in the human skin. But the construction of new patches is a peculiar phenomenon, with a particular purpose. As far as the skin is concerned in an old full-grown termitary, you will never observe the termites doing anything to keep it in condition. Such an old termitary is exposed year after year to torrents of rain, terrible droughts, scorching heat, frost, hail and wind, yet the skin remains undamaged. In cases of actual trauma, through hail for instance, healing takes place by the functioning of the two little creatures in the blood-stream --I mean the two kinds of termite. The living skin in general appears to be insoluble in water. Even during continuous rain you will not find the least portion of the living skin washed away. I am speaking generally, as of course we do occasionally find exceptions to every rule. For instance, we sometimes find various forms of abnormal growth, real diseases which expose the whole structure to danger. The termites are in these cases just as stupid as the blood-stream in a human may be. Sometimes the reason is obvious. You can encourage abnormal growth artificially by stimulation and other influences both in the human and in the termitary. A common abnormality is the growth of a long narrow tower which is constantly destroyed by wind and bad weather. This is an abnormal deviation from the usual pointed summit, which is found on termitaries amongst trees. The base of the tower is often so small that it is impossible for it to carry the superstructure. Yet every time the tower falls over it is built up anew. This is not only great waste of energy, but the abnormality often becomes a danger to the whole community. What constitutes the difference in quality between the skin of a dead termitary and that of a living one? What keeps the outer layer whole and healthy as long as the living stream continues moving within? What causes the cell walls to retain their structure intact, and what causes them to fall apart as soon as the termites die? There appears to be only one theory which conforms to modern scientific knowledge : there must be some kind of power projected from the living stream which influences the chemical constituents of organic bodies. This functions in the termitary as in the human body.
I am trying my utmost to prove that the termitary must be looked upon, not as a heap of dead earth, but as a separate animal at a certain stage of development. You must take my word for it that all this is very important and necessary if we are to get even a faint inkling of the perfect group soul and its characteristics. To be sure that we are quite clear in our minds, let us tabulate the similarities between our own physical body and the termitary :
- I. We have just seen that both possess some mysterious power which exercises an influence on the whole structure and is the cause of its stability.
- 2. Both the human body and the termitary consist of a structure of cells covered with a thick skin. An inhabitant of Mars who had learnt enough of our earth to divide matter into organic and inorganic would not hesitate for one moment to classify a piece of termitary as organic. The only difference would be that, for a piece of human body, he would need a microscope to study the structure, whereas in a termite he could see it with the naked eye.
- 3. Moving through the cell structure under the skin we find a living stream consisting of two kinds of organisms which both in man and the termite have the same functions. The white blood corpuscles quickly form a defensive circle round a wound. They are there for apparently one purpose only, to prevent the invasion of strange hostile organisms. The other, or red, blood corpuscles busy themselves with repairing the injury. From the innermost part of the body these latter bear material for new cells which eventually are covered with new skin.
If you make a wound in a termitary, the living stream is seen at once. The red syringe bearers form a circle of defence round the wound. Their only function is to prevent the entry of enemies by their fearful appearance or by actual defence. For purposes of defence they secrete a clear, sticky, stinging acid. The other termites of the living stream at once begin repairing the wound. They carry material from the depths of the termitary to build up the new cell structure, which eventually is covered with new skin.
- 4. The human body takes food through a foramen �the mouth. The food is carried to certain organs where it undergoes a chemical change ; afterwards it is taken up by the blood-stream and utilized by the red corpuscles for building purposes.
In the termitary, food is taken through several foramina and roughly masticated. It is then carried to different centres, where a certain kind of termite transforms it chemically ; it then enters the living stream and is used as food for the different members of the community and for building purposes. With a magnifying glass you can observe how each termite uses a drop of fluid from his own body to cover each minute grain which is used for building. This fluid holds the structure together. Most of the water used is carried up the vertical shaft leading from subterranean sources of moisture.
I wish to digress here in order to discuss normal and abnormal growth from another angle.
Physical growth is the most perfect example in nature of the psyche of inherited memory. It always appears very wonderful and inexplicable. We humans use our own consciousness as a criterion for classification. Eventually we discover that this consciousness can never be a criterion for psychological processes different from our own. We are inclined, for instance, to be amazed at the abnormal functioning of the subconscious mind. When we discover, however, that the subconscious mind is no more than the rudimentary animal psyche still present in man, and that all the wonders which abnormal functioning bring forth are merely usual everyday occurrences in lower animals, we need be less mystified. In the same way we are amazed at our own physical growth. But when we study similar phenomena in nature ; when we begin classifying our knowledge, we are forced to surrender our false criterion. We tend to believe that the psyche which directs human growth is something far beyond our own comprehension. This power we think does miracles which we could not do, and it appears to have some purpose far beyond our own understanding. Then, however, we begin to discover that the psyche which directs physical growth is in some respects more stupid and more ignorant than the psyche of a child. Even the roadmaker ' ant which we observed a short while ago, which would take years to learn that twice two always makes four, is a genius compared to this psyche. The psyche of physical growth conies lowest in the scale when ` Learn by experience is our rule of measure. If you take reasoning powers as your measure, this psyche comes even lower.
Of course when you realize that the same psyche which will from its own experience never learn that two and two make four, can, beginning with a single cell, build up an elephant or a person, or an oak tree cell by cell, then you begin getting a little muddled. That is because you use different measures.
If you were to discover that in every elephant, every human, every oak tree, there were parts which were built wrongly in a most stupid fashion ; if you were to find elephants with five legs, with deformed jaws, with regular but abnormal cell structures which form a danger to the whole body ; if you were to discover that abnormal growth is often persevered in, in spite of constant destruction through the inherent weakness of structure�just as we saw in the termites with their little tower --then you would become aware of the fact that one measure cannot be used for classification.
You will come to another important conclusion. Every psychologist who studies the group soul in nature seeks an answer to the question : Is there some powerful group soul above and beyond nature which dominates all natural phenomena and directs them to some goal? It appears a hopeless task to seek an answer in nature. Every truthful naturalist, who is not led astray by his own hopes and longings, will always doubt his ability to give a truthful answer. It is possible that we see only a small arc of a gigantic circle, that the means and ways of the universal soul lie far beyond our human understanding.
It is often said that the purpose of life is natural development, it being taken for granted that the development of living creatures leads to a state of absolute perfection, not relative perfection. All that development does, however, is to equip the organism to withstand the enemies that assail it in a special environment. For every new weapon it receives, it must lay clown an old one. Man who has developed the furthest psychologically, has paid the dearest for his psyche of individual causal memory. We have seen that the psyche which directs growth possesses no vestige of the powers of learning by experience, of reasoning, of intelligence, as we call it. When we make our own deepest feelings the arbiter, we are dismayed. For we seek in vain in nature for love, sympathy, pity, justice, altruism, protection of the innocent and weak. From the very beginnings of life we hear a chorus of anguish. Pain is a condition of existence. Escape from pain is the purpose in all striving.
And Nature? Pitiless cruelty, torment, and destruction of the weak and innocent. The thief, the assassin, the bloodstained robber, these are her favourites, these are the psychological types which are the triumphant victors of the strife.
The psyche, which we see faint and barely recognizable in the higher mammals, attaining its highest pinnacle in man, seems to be an exception to the great principles which dominate the universe. So the hope arises there is some purpose in nature, whose guiding principle is a psyche similar but infinitely more developed than the soul of the primate. If this is so, we seek in vain for evidence in our natural surroundings. We are as little able to comprehend such an exalted psyche as the termite can comprehend man, who orders his own aims and purposes throughout life.
If Nature possesses a universal psyche, it is one far above the common and most impelling feelings of the human psyche. She certainly has never wept in sympathy, nor stretched a hand protectively over even the most beautiful or innocent of her creatures.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMPOSITE ANIMAL
I HAVE taken great pains to prove that the termitary is a separate and composite animal in exactly the same way that man is a separate composite animal. Only the power of locomotion is absent. We must not forget, however, that there are other animals who have not the power of movement.
All this may remind you of the mountain in labour, which eventually produced a very small mouse. The facts I have given, however, are as strictly true as any other established biological phenomenon, and it is necessary to accept them if you wish to understand the life history of the termite. .
If you make a wound in the round termitary made by Eutermes, later called Trinervitermes -a small round vertical hole with a walkkkiinng stick, for instance, and then isolate the wound with a sharp circular cut through the skin, the termites begin as usual to repair the wound. But what you have done causes in many cases a curious reflex. The termites begin abnormal building. Instead of repairing the cells and passages and growing a new skin over this, they build a tower. I believe the stimulus is the entry of sunlight. If the base is too small, the tower topples over again and again as soon as it reaches a certain height, and just as often the termites reconstruct it. The tower is not only unnecessary to the termitary, but actually a disadvantage.
It is a disturbing influence which throws the normal course of life of the organism into disorder. It is analogous to the growth of a cancer.
Catch a pair of our common house lizards and tame them. With a lancet make two or three longitudinal cuts in the tail. In some cases you will initiate a curious reflex and an abnormal growth will begin. Instead of merely repairing the wound, a new tail is grown. If you amputate the new tail, you may find a double tail sprouting. In this way you can if all goes well�manufacture a lizard with seven tails. In the same way we can manufacture a termitary with seven towers, to the great disadvantage of the whole community. We cannot make a lizard's tail ; nor can we make a tower with the same materials and in the same way as the termite. But we would be far too clever to build in such a faulty, unnecessary fashion.
I will not try to bring any further proofs of the similarity between the termitary and other animals, but if this theory is borne in mind, constant proof will be forthcoming when the termite is studied. The insects themselves should always be thought of as the blood-stream and organs of a single animal
If the highly developed, highly specialized animals originally developed from communities like the termite, one should be able to find instances of such symbiosis, which is more than mere partnership, low down in the scale of organic life. There are many such instances, which justify us in believing that organisms of several kinds can result in a successful amalgamation. Of this nature is the union between fungus and alga to form a lichen, which differs enormously from both original ones. But the object and actual results of the process are much more clearly seen when we meet it fairly high in the animal kingdom. In the sea around the African coast there can be found a hundred kinds of a certain species of marine creature. Its scientific name is 11 tvdroniedusa, and there is a related species known as Siplionophora. We will observe Siphonophora. There is no other animal of its size in the ocean which can boast of so large a bibliography. Ernst Mickel and other famous naturalists spent years studying, describing and classifying them. The great peculiarity of these creatures is that every full-grown specimen is a composite animal composed of hundreds of individuals. The single individual is born by a budding process from the generative group of the composite animal. These newly born individuals swim round freely and are able to continue life singly and reproduce themselves. Each is a perfect marine creature with mouth, stomach, swimming apparatus and sexual organs. If by chance a group of Siphonophora happen to meet, they cling to each other. In some species organic union takes place immediately, in others something less than this. But apart from this small difference the final result is the same. Immediately after the union the single individuals undergo a curious change. One group forms a complicated swimming apparatus ; another group becomes the stomach and digestive system ; and yet another group develops into the sexual organs of the composite animal. One group even takes on hepatic functions and becomes the liver. Each individual of such a group loses all its separate organic functions. Those of the stomach group, for instance, forget they ever sought food or had a sexual life of their own. The new organism is a perfect whole animal. Were you to see it in its perfect stage you would not dream that it had been formed in this way from separate individuals. Yet one can break it up again ! One can tear apart each individual until the whole animal has been disorganized. One might suppose death would be the result, but not at all. Each little part begins to stir in the water. Slowly it repairs its lost organs and functions until at last it once again is a perfect individual, as different from the composite Siphonophora as the camel from the whale.
One can repeat this process innumerable times without apparently injuring either the individual or the composite creature.
In such a way our termitary has been formed ; in the same way the individuals have undergone wonderful changes in order to form group organs. In every termitary there is a brain, a stomach, a liver and sexual organs which ensure the propagation of the race. They have legs and arms for gathering food ; they have a mouth. If natural selection continues to operate, the final result may be a termitary which moves slowly over the veld. There are hundreds of facts, biological and psychological, in nature which prove all highly developed animals have been formed from separate organism. Once I collected all the facts and classified them, hoping to startle the scientific world. Unfortunately my tower collapsed, not because it was wrongly built, but because other naturalists had already become aware of all this. Claude Bernard in his opening address to the French Academy (1869), Dr. Durand de Gros, in his Electro-dynantique Vitale (1855) and Varietes Philosophiques (1857), tried to show that the vital organs of man were separate animals. In our own time Jean Finot in his optimistic demonstration on Life and Death wrote : ` The teaching that the human organism is composed of separate animals, each with a separate nervous system, will, we hope, find more and more proof in the scientific investigation of our time.'
Another fact one should constantly remember is that, if there is the least grain of truth in this theory of development, then just as certainly the termite was originally a perfect flying individual insect, of which the queen and king are the prototypes. The union of these individuals and the wonderful changes which resulted from it is a late development in the history of the race. If the blind, wingless, sexless soldiers and workers are not a degeneration of the perfect king and queen type, then the opposite conclusion will have to be accepted : the perfect king and queen must be a development from one or other of the sexless types, and that cannot be the case. There are other biological facts which indicate that the imperfect types are the result of degenerative change of the perfect insect. The rudiments of wing buds and of sexual organs in the sexless types show clearly the way development, or rather degeneration, has gone.
End of Excerpt
The poet Robert Frost gives an amusing description of an ant colony as a superorganism along the lines of what Marais was saying concerning a termite colony. Here is an excerpt from Robert Frost's poem Departmental
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest --
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court
Then the word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commisary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solem mortician;
And taking a formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in the air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands around to stare.
It is nobody else's affair.
It couldn't be called ungentle.
But how thoroughly departmental.
The American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber referred to cultures as superorganisms. This would apply also to the vital subunits of cultures, their languages. Languages evolve like species.
There may be no more to the concept of superorganism than that which is also captured by the word system, but it is worth keeping in mind when considering the structure and dynamics of cities. There is a remarkable similarity of cities to Eugene Marais' termite colonies.
The German geographic economist von Thünen developed a theory of land use which was adapted by the American economist William Alonso to apply specifically to cities. The Dutch economist Harold Hotelling provided some insights into spatial competition. The German economist Alfred Weber worked out the theory of the spatial location of industry which is vital for understanding the economic bases of cities. The systematic networks of cities was developed by the German geographer Walter Christaller. Another relevant spatial network system for cities involves market areas. The theory of market areas was worked out by the German economist Auguste Lösch.
(To be continued.)
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