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The Superorganism Minndset


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My talk at Agile India 2019

Published in: Leadership & Management
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The Superorganism Minndset

  1. 1. The Superorganism Mindset Tathagat Varma Country Manager, Nerdwallet Image:
  2. 2. Good Old Ants! • Ants are small insects, and thus easy prey for larger birds or insects. Individually, they also have a limited ability to forage for food, or to maintain their reproductive cycle. • There are specialised functions in an ant colony - the queen (only to lay eggs, and not to boss around!), female workers (to do the work!) and males (just for mating!). • However, they are united toward the common purpose of survival, growth and reproduction. They communicate with each others using chemicals to hunt or forage for food or to build nests, etc. The live and work together in highly organized societies known as colonies. • Ant colonies living up on a tree might even be protecting it from predators! • Smaller ant colonies tend to live faster, die younger and burn up more energy than their larger counterparts, as do the individual ants that make up those colonies. • Contaminated ants might even take “sick days” to protect colony!
  4. 4. Birds swarming
  5. 5. Fireflies synchronizing
  6. 6. Fish vortex
  7. 7. Wood Wide Web
  8. 8. What’s happening? • Why are these individual members of a species collaborating instead of competing for resources? • How do they manage to orchestrate their individual behaviors in favor of a single collective behavior? • Is it limited to some social insects, animals and birds, or might also apply to humans?
  9. 9. Darwin favored competition! Then how do we explain intra- species cooperation?
  10. 10. Dawkins favored the selfish gene! Natural selection favors the passing on of genes, not the organism itself. Once an organism has successfully reproduced, natural selection doesn't care what happens after.But, what explains altruism among the same species? “Gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals.”
  11. 11. Evolution of Altruistic Behavior “Despite the principle of 'survival of the fittest' the ultimate criterion which determines whether [a gene] G will spread is not whether the behavior is to the benefit of the behaver, but whether it is to the benefit of the gene G ...With altruism this will happen only if the affected individual is a relative of the altruist, therefore having an increased chance of carrying the gene.” — W. D. Hamilton, The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior, pp. 354–355
  12. 12. Cooperation vs Competition “In general, when we think about the conflict between cooperation and competition in team sports, we tend to think about the relationships between the players on a team. We care deeply about their willingness to cooperate and we distinguish cooperative “team players” from selfish non-team players, complaining about the latter even when their individual skill is formidable. The reason we want players to cooperate is so that they can compete better as a team. Cooperation at the level of the individual enables effective competition at the level of the group, and conversely, the competition between teams motivates cooperation between players. There is a constructive relationship between cooperation and competition when they operate at different levels of organization. The interplay between levels is a kind of evolutionary process where competition at the team level improves the cooperation between players. Just as in biological evolution, in organized team sports there is a process of selection of winners through competition of teams. Over time, the teams will change how they behave; the less successful teams will emulate strategies of teams that are doing well.” Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work
  13. 13. Superorganism • Coined by James Hutton, The Father of Geology, in 1789 to refer to Earth in the context of geophysiology. Entomologist William Morton Wheeler in 1911 to describe ant colonies, which he thought of quite literally as organisms composed of individual ant “Cells” • When organisms of different species come together to form an ecological unit, they are known as “holobionts” • When organisms of same species come together for a common purpose and behave as if they were a single organism, they accomplish the same tasks as the individual organism but with far less processing power! They do so by leveraging the power of “collective intelligence” and “collaborative innovation” • Initially applied to “eusocial” insects (e.g. ant colony, termites, etc.), but now more broadly applied to other animals, and even to human groups • They are able to scale, they don’t create waste, and they live long!
  14. 14. Division of Labor
  15. 15. Eusociality Eusociality (or the good sociality) is the highest form of sociality, and is defined by the following characteristics: • Cooperative brood care • Overlapping generations • Reproductive division of labor
  16. 16. Collective Intelligence Collective intelligence is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making. 
  17. 17. Energy-efficient! Kleiber's law: for vast majority of animals, an animal's metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal's mass.
  18. 18. Self-Organization Self-organization is a set of dynamical mechanisms whereby structures appear at the global level of a system from interactions among its lower-level components. The rules specifying the interactions among the system's constituent units are executed on the basis of purely local information, without reference to the global pattern, which is an emergent property of the system rather than a property imposed upon the system by an external ordering influence. For example, the emerging structures in the case of foraging in ants include spatiotemporally organized networks of pheromone trails. Self-organization relies on four basic ingredients: 1. Positive feedback reinforces desired behavior, such as when a bee recruits other bees to help exploit a food source 2. Negative feedback counterbalances positive feedback, such as when bees overcrowd a food source, which stops them from exploring it 3. Amplification of randomness leads to positive reinforcement, such as when bees that get lost trying to locate a known food source discover new food sources 4. Amplification of interactivity has a positive outcome, that is, when insects make positive use of the results of their own activities as well as those from the activities of other insects. Swarm Intelligence: Bonabeau et al
  19. 19. Swarm Creativity • Collaborative innovation networks, e.g. • Wikipedia • Open Source
  20. 20. Decoding Superorganisms
  21. 21. Human Superorganism? “From many, one”
  22. 22. A Human Pyramid
  23. 23. Pedestrian Crossing
  24. 24. Emergency Room
  25. 25. Cycling Peloton
  26. 26. Mexican Wave
  27. 27. Flash Mob
  28. 28. Mosh Pit
  29. 29. Skydiving Formation
  30. 30. Burning Man
  31. 31. Kumbh Mela
  32. 32. Project Aristotle: Google’s research on what makes a successful team
  33. 33. References • The Human Superorganism - Rodney Dietert, 2016 • Teeming - Tamsin Woolley-Barker, 2017 • • • • • • • • • • • • •