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Superorganisms and Stone Soup

[Enjoy this excerpt from Dr. Tamsin's new book, Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World. She is Mycomesh's Senior Biology Advisor and brings her deep understanding of other species to bear on the challenges that we humans face. Much more coming... John and Barbara McDonald]

Every living thing is driven by an overwhelmingly powerful purpose: to nurture the next generation and ensure its success. That, at its core, is the nature of value. We’ve inherited a talent for creating it—four billion years of our ancestors have done it before us. The drive to make more for the future runs deep.

For superorganisms, though, nurturing the next generation is not just a personal endeavor—it’s collectively important. The future belongs to us all, not just to the parents among us. Only an ant-like ape could understand that. We may not agree what the future should look like, or how to get there, but we’re in it together, regardless.

When a hungry wolverine goes out to find a helpless rabbit, it hunts it down, chases and devours it—alone. Superorganisms are not like this—we make a feast together.

It’s the old Stone Soup fable: a hungry stranger enters a starving village, and knocks on doors to beg for a meal. No one will share—the people hide in their homes, miserable behind their closed doors. Finally, the stranger goes to the town square and makes a fire, collecting bits of downed wood here and there. He takes a pot from his pack, pulls up some water from the town well, and puts it on to boil. Then he adds a simple stone, and hums to himself, warming his hands by the fire. A few curious children come out 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 start to bring little things—an old potato, a shriveled up carrot, a stick of wood for the fire—and some of their parents come too. Soon, a delicious aroma wafts up from the pot. The villagers eye the growing crowd suspiciously from their windows, but they can smell the soup. More people join in—adding a bit of dried sage and some salt. It gets competitive. Someone busts out a squawking chicken, and all the neighbors cheer. All who shared eat, everyone who trusted is full. An old man pulls out a fiddle, a woman opens a dusty bottle she’s been hoarding. 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. You’ll find ants all over the deserts of Australia, and termites in the parched Kalahari. Naked mole rats push dirt around Ethiopia as we speak. How do they do what they do?

Superorganisms 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, superorganism colonies gradually accumulate great wealth.

These species have big footprints as well. Like us, the ants and termites kept their tender tropical skin and preference for warmer climates, and adjusted the world around them instead. They build elaborate air-conditioned structures, cultivate crops, herd and milk domestic animals. Hundreds of thousands—even millions—of individuals work together doing these complex things—with no management of any kind. Together, they sense and respond to their environment better than any individual could alone, and faster and more efficiently than any managed hierarchy ever could.

Superorganism societies are focused entirely on one thing: making each generation more successful than the last. To do that, they must continuously compound their wealth. They’ve been doing it together much longer than we have, and they’ve acquired some interesting tricks—twelve simple principles by my reckoning.

The most important thing is that they build their wealth with infinite things (as far as living Earth is concerned)—sunlight and carbon, the complexity, diversity, and interconnectedness of networks. Their organizations grow from the edges out, in modular, self-managed units that seek and respond to opportunity and threat on the front lines. There are termite mounds in the Congo that have been occupied for 2,400 years,[1] and a humongous fungus in Oregon that is over 8,500 years old.[2] These superorganisms are as close to immortal as living things get, and their ancient way of life is a recipe for boundless success.

How do they make more each generation? These societies spill the value they create out into their larger ecosystems, feeding the life that feeds them. They have to—it's the only way to compound that value for the future. This abundance spirals outward, in widening cascades of opportunity. The kinds of value that superorganisms produce are enduring, and the simple principles they use to make it can change the world. They have already, in fact—many times over in the history of Earth. I believe they can change it again.

Emulating other superorganisms is a radically new way to do business—a new way to structure our entire society, really. Maybe that sounds vast and daunting to you, but I don’t believe it is actually that hard. Superorganisms operate on just a dozen simple principles, and because we are superorganisms too, they feel natural to us.

It’s easy to re-imagine our companies as platforms for collective value creation, nurtured and cared for by the tiny, distributed, and self-organized contributions of many creative individuals. It’s the way we ant-like apes like to work. It’s the way we work best. Not only that, but our societies, like those of the ants and bees and fungi, are complex adaptive systems. Everything is connected, and if you can find the right leverage points, the whole thing can flip on a dime. Revolutions and tipping points can surprise us.

[1] “2,200 Year Old Termite Mound Discovered in Central Africa.” Sarah Tse. The Science Explorer, accessed September 9, 2015

[2] “Humungous fungus: world's largest organism?” Bob Beale-ABC Science Online. The Lab, accessed 10 April 2003. ttp://

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