Most of us want to stay "plugged in" -- regularly checking our email or cell phones even when there is no need. Have you ever wondered what it is, broadly speaking, that we want to plug in to? Mostly we plug into communities of people, whether family, coworkers or other groups. Thanks to cell phones, rapid transportation and the internet, the whole world is becoming increasingly interconnected. In some fundamental way, most of us can be seen as cogs in the wheels of humanity, doing our small part in concert with many others. Advanced techonolgies enable us to coordinate with each other instantly, regardless of where we are or what we are doing.
Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson have written a fascinating book called "Superorganisms: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Colonies". Ants, bees, and termites each perform specialized tasks to contribute to the survival of their colony. The specificity of their functions and their extreme interdependence prompts some experts to think of insects not as individuals residing in community, but rather as distinct parts of a superorganism. Each insect is not self-sufficent, but rather each functions more like an organ or body part, all of which work together to create a whole functioning organism.
Individual ants, for example, are exclusively soldiers, morticians, garbage collectors, or scouts. If an ant colony is a superorganism, the queen ant is its ovary laying up to twenty eggs a minute for years on end. In the picture above, ants are working together to create a natural bridge. (To learn more, check out the NY Times book review about Superorganisms)
Decision making within a superorganism requires regular communication and an understanding of how the entire group works. Each participating creature must engage in an amazing level of coordination for a colony to function at its best.
The same thinking canbe applied to humans, increasingly. Most of us coordinate with family members, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow citizens (for example, by participating in elections, following laws). We coordinate with others to purchase items we need (stores, online, markets), to travel (whether following traffic rules or train or bus schedules) or to receive an education.
So when I find myself checking my messages or email compulsively, I try to stop. I have no personal need to be plugged in all the time, yet sometimes I feel as though I do. My compulsion to be connected - whether in person, on the phone, or online - may be fueled by an evolutionary force contrary to my personal goals.
If humans are in fact becomoing part of a superorganism, I suspect that we become initially attached through our family of origin. And then as we grow older we became connected through social organizations like school, religion, community, culture, and work. People's facial expressions and body language communicate their needs. And our so-called mirror neurons allow us to understand what other people feel and need, to help us to fit in to a group. Emotional exchanges transmit instructions about what is expected of us, often better than words. These hidden forces - attachments, emotions, and mirror neurons - exert enormous power over our behavior, whether we recognize it or not.
How might your behavior be governed by group forces in ways you don't recognize?