Reviving the superorganism

J Theor Biol. 1989 Feb 8;136(3):337-56. doi: 10.1016/s0022-5193(89)80169-9.


Individuals become functionally organized to survive and reproduce in their environments by the process of natural selection. The question of whether larger units such as groups and communities can possess similar properties of functional organization, and therefore be regarded as "superorganisms", has a long history in biological thought. Modern evolutionary biology has rejected the concept of superorganisms, explaining virtually all adaptations at the individual or gene level. We criticize the modern literature on three counts. First, individual selection in its strong form is founded on a logical contradiction, in which genes-in-individuals are treated differently than individuals-in-groups or species-in-communities. Imposing consistency clearly shows that groups and communities can be organisms in the same sense that individuals are. Furthermore, superorganisms are more than just a theoretical possibility and actually exist in nature. Second, the view that genes are the "ultimate" unit of selection is irrelevant to the question of functional organization. Third, modern evolutionary biology includes numerous conceptual frameworks for analyzing evolution in structured populations. These frameworks should be regarded as different ways of analyzing a common process which, to be correct, must converge on the same conclusions. Unfortunately, evolutionists frequently regard them as competing theories that invoke different mechanisms, such that if one is "right" the others must be "wrong". The problem of multiple frameworks is aggravated by the fact that major terms, such as "units of selection", are defined differently within each framework, yet many evolutionists who use one framework to argue against another assume shared meanings. We suggest that focusing on the concept of organism will help dispell this fog of semantic confusion, allowing all frameworks to converge on the same conclusions regarding units of functional organization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Selection, Genetic*