Zion as Superorganism

Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH.

The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18:

And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.

Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27:

I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom… I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.

Based on these two scriptures, I see the hallmark characteristics of Zion as altruism and unity. On the one hand, that gives us a very general conception of what a Zion society would look like. But on the other hand, that’s really nowhere near enough, from a practical standpoint, to go about building a Zion society. This leaves Mormons in a pickle. We’re under divine direction to build Zion, but we don’t in any real detail, what it’s supposed to look like. How are you supposed to build something, if you don’t even know what it looks like?

That question immediately brought to my mind Nephi’s brief tenure as shipwright:

8. The Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.
9. And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?
10. And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.

Nephi’s dilemma was essentially the same as ours. The Lord told him to build a ship, and he didn’t know how to do that. I found his response illuminating. He didn’t ask for blueprints. He asked for help making tools. This is an entirely different approach from the one anticipated by our question, but as I thought about it, I realized that this is actually a general pattern:

  • And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. (1 Nephi 4:6)
  • For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little. (Isaiah 28:10)
  • Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)

I could go on, but I think this sampling of verses makes the point. The scriptures routinely depict people being asked to build without blueprints, take journeys without maps, and in general get started without knowing how to finish. Tools, not blueprints.

It’s an interesting dichotomy. Blueprints are by their very nature top-down, centralized, and inflexible. Tools, on the other hand, are bottom-up, decentralized, and flexible. One set of blueprints only tells you how to build one model of house, but a set of tools allows you to build all kinds of different buildings. This may seem to contradict the rigid, hierarchical model the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s a topic unto itself, and it’s one I didn’t have time to get into in my presentation. I don’t want to go off on that tangent now, either, but I will simply point out that–worst case scenario–my emphasis on the bottom-up nature of tools vs. blueprints isn’t any more of a problem then, say, D&C 58:27:

Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

There is room for a synthesis of the Church’s concept of authority, keys, and hierarchies with the emphasis on free will and independence.

So then the question becomes: what tools? We know a lot–as a society–about tools for building a truly staggering variety of physical artifacts, but what do we know about building societies? Now, you might think that we know all about building societies since humans are, by definition, social animals. But it turns out that that is exactly the problem. It is because we instinctively build communities and societies that we don’t really have a good awareness of what we’re actually doing. As a comparison, consider how long language existed before we had linguistics. And of course, it’s not as though the presence of linguistics as a field means that we’ve answered all the questions there are to have about language. It just means we’ve started to ask the questions.

Trying to understand the process of language acquisition–both at an individual level as each young human learns to speak and also at a species level as our ancestors developed language for the first time–is an endeavor that calls across a wide range of sophisticated disciplines: neuroscience, statistics, paleontology, and many, many more. Of course this hasn’t stopped use from building a plethora of constructed languages, but we’re still just beginning to understand what we’re doing.

I think we’re probably in a similar place when it comes to crafting societies. Yes, we’ve lived in societies are whole lives (individually and as a species), but that doesn’t mean we know very much about it. I think we’re only starting to develop the tools now (in fields like social psychology, neuroscience, paleontology, game theory, etc.) to begin to understand our nature as ultrasocial animals. In particular, I think that the field of complex systems has a lot to offer here. I didn’t have time to go into it in the paper, and I don’t want to take this tangent either, but my point for now is just to gesture in the direction of the field and say: this is new; this is relevant; this is promising.

So. Let’s talk about superorganisms. A superorganism is an organism made of organisms. Which is the part in my presentation where I was unable to resist an Xzibit joke.

Organisms in your Organism

Within the superorganism, the individual organisms can specialize (e.g. worker ants, army ants, and the queen). The individual organisms act together as a whole through distributed intelligence (e.g. ants optimizing routes to food sources), and the superorganism itself exhibits homeostasis and emergence.

Members of superorganisms are ultrasocial. According to Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Happiness Hypothesis, ultrasocial organisms “[live] in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of individuals reap the benefit of an extensive division of labor.” This, then, is the primary benefit of superorganisms: living together in large numbers allows division of labor which in turn allows specialization. And, as Matt Ridley wrote in The Origins of Virtue, “the division of labor is what makes a body worth inventing.” (A body is one kind of superorganism.)

There are steep costs to be paid as well, however. First, there is the coordination problem. In order for the group of individual organisms to function as a cohesive whole, they have to find some way of coordinating their behavior without a centralized, executive authority. This is the part of superorganisms that movies always get wrong. In movies, it’s common to have hive-like bad guys (usually in science fiction, like the Borg) and invariably the scriptwriters end up creating a special member of the hive that acts as the leader, usually the queen. But this completely misses the point of a superorganism, there isn’t a centralized command and control center. Beehives don’t have them. Ant colonies don’t have them. Bodies don’t really have them either, for that matter. (The realization that we have a unified, rational mind exerting executive control over a primarily passive body is one of the great illusions of our time, but that’s another tangent.) But, in order to make the transition from just “a bunch of organisms in close proximity” to superorganism, this coordination problem has to be overcome. One example of how it is overcome, of course, is the famous honeybee waggle dance. Different honeybees do their own dances (showing the location of the pollen they have found), and the closest source tends to get the most dancers, and eventually this popularity contest leads to the entire hive (more or less) heading off in the same direction. There is not leader, but there is coordination.

In addition to the coordination problem, there is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a nutshell: the superorganism needs a way of convincing the constituent organisms to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of the group. In most superorganisms, this is accomplished through genetic similarity. From the perspective of selfish gene theory, a worker ant is willing to forego reproduction because the queen shares a very similar genetic code. That is not a solution in and of itself, however. As Ridley wrote, “your body is only a whole because of elaborate mechanisms to suppress mutiny.” Even though your liver cells are genetically related to your heart cells (for example), the individual liver cells are still their own little organisms with their own imperative to survive at all costs. So, superorganisms tend to rely on genetic similarity and on other constraints to force the individual organisms to sacrifice their own self-interest for the group’s benefit. (Of course this isn’t about the intentions of liver cells, heart cells, or worker ants because they don’t have self-awareness. Instead, it’s about biological incentives in the context of natural selection. The anthropomorphic terminology is useful as long as we keep this caveat in mind.)

Now, here’s the point. If a superoganism figures out how to overcome these hurdles, then the superorganism has achieved two attributes that should be familiar from the very start of our discussion: unity (from overcoming the coordination problem) and altruism (from solving the Prisoner’s dilemma). We’ll return to this point presently.

So I’ve already indicated a few of the classic examples of superorganisms (ant colonies, beehives, and human bodies). There are few more that are pretty cool, including slime molds and the Portuguese man o’ war. Most importantly, however, human societies are superorganisms. Thus Jonathan Haidt: “Beehives and ant nests, with their separate castes of soldiers, scouts, and nursery attendants, are examples of ultrasociality, and so are human societies.” (Emphasis added. Also, I’m equating superorganisms with ultrasociality here, because they are close enough for government work.)

So you can think of a human society as a superorganism. Imagine, for example, a city. There you have thousands or even millions of people who live in close proximity, who practice division of labor, and who therefore specialize. In fact, this specialization is likely the key driving factor of our species’ long climb towards technological prowess, and it correlates with population size: the more we are the smarter we are. Matt Ridley once again, this time from the Wall Street Journal:

An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world’s income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.

By contrast, it’s a fair bet that if you took a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not, you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms, they often get richer.

In this fact lies a vital clue to the nature of the human animal, one that has until recently been overlooked: namely, that what explains the sudden success of the human species over the past 200,000 years is not some breakthrough in individual ability, but rather the cumulative effects of collective enterprise, achieved through trade.

Unfortunately, human ultrasociality is broken. Jonathan Haidt, this time writing in The Righteous Mind, says that “We humans have a dual nature — we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” And later on:

[Religion makes people] feel and act as though they were part of one body,… and brought into play the force of group selection (which shapes individuals to work for the good of their group). But we didn’t make it all the way through the loophole: human nature is a complex mix of preparations for extreme selfishness and extreme altruism.

The human superorganism is flawed.

Now, what would happen if this weren’t the case? What would happen if we were perfectly ultrasocial? Imagine the smallest human society–a husband and wife–who are separated from all other humanity on a dessert island when they get married. In this scenario, the husband and wife would have perfectly aligned interests (genetically speaking) because there would be no possibility of infidelity and no competing requests for resources from other family members. Now, imagine if this scenario was repeated again and again, generation after generation. What kind of relationship would the spouses have?

There would be no falling in love, because there would be no alternative mates to choose among, and falling in love would be a huge waste. You would literally love your mate as yourself, but that’s the point: you don’t really love yourself, except metaphorically; you are yourself. The two of you would be as far as evolution is concerned, one flesh, and your relationship would be governed by mindless physiology… You might feel pain if you observed your mate cut herself, but all the feelings we have about our mates that make a relationship so wonderful when it is working well (and so painful when it is not) would never evolve. Even if a species had them when they took up this way of life, they would be selected out as surely as the eyes of a cave-dwelling fish are selected out, because they would be all cost and no benefit.

This is Steven Pinker quoting from Donald Symons in Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

So, if we were perfectly ultrasocial, we’d have perfect unity and perfect altruism. But we’d lack love, empathy, and individualism.

Which leads me to the conclusion that there must be “opposition in all things” not just on an individual level, but also on a social level. Our brokenness generates growth, individually and collectively. And a Zion with altruism and unity is not enough. We need something like mindful altruism and heterogeneous unity. What I have in mind for mindful altruism is giving as though the other is the self, but not giving to another that is literally part of the self. When ants share resources, that is not sharing anymore than when blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. Zion is something more. And by heterogeneous unity what I have in mind is the ability to find unity on core issues despite tolerating divergence on other issues.

In short: Zion has to be difficult to build in order to be worth having. Which is why I added the subtitle to my talk: Zion, some assembly required.

And, if you’re interested, here’s the video of the actual presentation.

50 comments for “Zion as Superorganism

  1. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Who’s writing this? Nathaniel or Rosalynde?

    Regarding the Church and hierarchy, while the Church has top down features by and large (IMO) most of what they’re doing is trying to get people to figure things out on their own. The Church emphasizes points of concern but that’s more the goal rather than the details typically. (More like God telling the brother of Jared what was needed but not how to do it) This isn’t to deny top down structures that are like blueprints. (Meeting structure being an obvious one)

    I like your comparing Zion with the ultra-organism. I think it highlights an interesting tension. What does being one or of one mind mean? I think most would be pretty uncomfortable being too much like an ant colony or bee hive. But clearly we’re supposed to be one in a stronger sense than we’re willing to be right now.

  2. April 25, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Fascinating post Nathaniel. It is interesting that you say that flaws in the human super-organism allow love and empathy. If flaws are necessary, (opposition in all things), what does that say about the LDS pursuit of heavenly perfection and utopian dreams of a Zion society? Is it even mechanically possible? Does perfection only exist as a goal, but never a real destination, because it doesn’t even exist?

  3. April 25, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    Nathaniel wrote this about Nathaniel’s presentation.

    Rosalynde also presented at the MTA conference (and her talk was great!) but this isn’t by her or about her talk. (She does show up as the initial image in the YouTube video, but if you pay it, it should skip ahead to Nathaniel’s presentation automatically.)

    … and that’s enough self-reference in the third person for today, I think.

    Regarding the Church and hierarchy, while the Church has top down features by and large (IMO) most of what they’re doing is trying to get people to figure things out on their own.

    Yup, I strongly agree with that.

    What does being one or of one mind mean?

    I don’t have a final answer to that, but one implication of this post is that it doesn’t imply the kind of dissolution of individuality that we have in mind when we think about beehives or ant colonies. Diversity is actually a really important feature of superorganisms (and of complex systems in general), but I haven’t finished reading Scott Page’s book yet, so I’ll hold off on further speculation and comments until I do.

  4. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    OK, I was just confused by the beginning of the video (I didn’t watch it far — guess I should have)

  5. April 25, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    In this life time, Nate, I’m reasonably confident that for practical purposes, various forms of perfection are impossible for us in this sphere. (I had a mission companion who would have begged to differ. He was confident, at 20-something, that he was on track to be perfect in the “ready to be translated now” sense of perfect by age 30. I probably should have checked in with him to see how that worked out for him, but he didn’t like me very much so it’s just as well that I haven’t tried that.)

    Anyway, I’d say that the practical implication is that the point where we get our Zion society off the ground is probably the point at which the mortal experiment is over. For the most part, you can’t hit perfection here. In those rare cases when we do–individually or collectively–we exit pretty soon thereafter. That’s what happened to a couple of prophets over time, and it’s what happened to the Enoch’s city. It may have been what happened to the Nephite Zion, but–alas–they went the other way and left perfection behind instead of leaving behind this realm.

    So the target is real. It is mechanically possible. It does really exist.

    But I’m not holding my breath that I’ll arive or we’ll arrive in my lifetime. This mortal life is a time for journeys more than it is a time for destinations.

  6. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    An other way of thinking the issue is that thinking about perfection isn’t typically helpful. We don’t know what perfection even means relative to society or our nature. However we can understand being better and that’s something we can focus on.

  7. April 25, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    I always wondered about Methuselah. How did it feel to be among those to be translated, but be asked to stay behind? All his friends, family, father, were taken to heaven, but he remained to perpetuate the covenant of the Priesthood. Makes me wonder what happened between that and the moment he “took glory unto himself.”

    Makes me also think of John and the 3 Nephites. And Christ, Himself.

    I think there’s a secret to Zion hidden also in those stories. Maybe it’s less about perfection and more about charity. Maybe your two hallmarks are really just one.

  8. April 25, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    I like the superorganism model. Whatever unity means, it is (in my opinion, and I think in the view of a superorganism model) not all identical parts, and not all interchangeable parts, and not a smoothly functioning machine. Instead, I think the messiness of organic life is a good place to start, hence organism. But then using the human body as one example (also cite 1 Corinthians 12) poses some interesting questions, some of which you touch on:

    >”your body is only a whole because of elaborate mechanisms to suppress mutiny” — which sometimes go wrong, auto-immune diseases and cancers, and the whole category of mental disorders, being easy examples. Are there analogs in seeking Zion? If so, are they analogously deadly?

    >”The realization that we have a unified, rational mind exerting executive control over a primarily passive body is one of the great illusions of our time” — the consciousness question is obvious. Similar to how I think about consciousness, perhaps it is useful to think of Zion in the language of emergence instead of the language of being.

    And what should we think about vestigial parts, extra parts, apparently accidental parts? Bodies are messy, complicated, not perfectly well designed. Evolution is more about accidents that are good enough for survival than about a trivially defined perfection.

    All of which leads me to think of Zion as a quality of society that we move toward or away from, but not something that we achieve. (Query whether ‘not achieve’ is in the sense of approaching asymptotically, or in the sense of an undefined term or category error?)

  9. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    It’s worth mentioning that the superorganism model isn’t new. It’s basically the Stoic stance where the universe itself ought be conceived as a single organism and that ethics is involved in your place in the organism. Paul takes up that imagery in places when he talks of the body of Christ. Especially in 1 Corinthians. It’s an imagery that people would have recognized immediately from that Stoic context.

  10. April 25, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Our notions of Zion are sealed to our notions of God and Cosmos. We cannot imagine a heavenly society independent of our notions of heaven. Here is our first problem, and it’s an intractable one. We simply do not have a proper idea of God and Cosmos. Our ideas of the universe are mainly materialistic—rocks in motion sailing upon mathematical waves. Our idea of God is an echo of this—a sacred CEO in charge of souls in motion paddling upon theological waves. This is no slight quibble. Our ideas of Zion are mostly echoes of Western, Protestant, and Corporate ideologies interlaced with modern, materialistic cosmology.

    What would be the conception of Zion to a people who held a fundamentally different view of God and Cosmos? I should imagine very different. Thus, our conception of Zion is historical. Our ideas of Zion is our cosmogony in the future tense; therefore, it is a real reflection of our ideas of the cosmogony in the past tense. Change the latter and you will get a completely different conception of Zion.

    Finally, the more we come to know the divine the more we are capable of Zion. And the only way to know the divine is to make one’s self capable of it. The divine, therefore, is wholly rooted in the sympathetic relationship between God and the individual. Here is a paradox. The Superorganism of Zion (the collective) can only exist within authentic individuality. To be of one heart and one mind is NOT to emulate a hive model or corporate structure. It is to be your authentic self, to become your own transcendent individuality. This has consequences. Geometrically speaking, Zion is a fractal form of consciousness where every individual is a scale invariant image of the whole because of its relationship to the whole. In this view, however, the individual is not a copy of form and function of the whole, but a sympathetic modality that prizes variance and individuality while manifesting the purpose of the whole. And vice versa. To be of one heart and one mind could just as easily be pointed to the idea of the collective seeking to emulate the individual.

    One could read the atonement of the Cross in this way. When Christ suffered for my sins he brought the entire universe to bear in singular consideration of my individuality. The atonement works because Christ was willing to become entirely me.

    As a result, every time we teach “follow the prophet no matter what” we teach a corporatized idea of Zion which is the antithesis of what Zion actually is. I’m not saying you shouldn’t follow the prophet. You should. I am saying that the teaching itself is rooted in a metaphysics that cannot produce Zion. To produce Zion you must be a Christ. How do you get there? On the Cross. Whatever Zion is, it can only be built by people willing to engage fully in the authentic suffering of the other. This is more than hard. It is against our natures. It is easier to imagine Zion as a rule-based hierarchal organization where everyone is following the person in front of them.

    For the most part, our ideas of Zion are very much still with the ants and bees.

  11. Observer
    April 25, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    I misread the title. I guess I don’t have anything to say after all.

  12. True Blue
    April 26, 2016 at 2:55 am

    John @ 7 I like your ideas. My take is that we retain our individuality, and once we catch the vision of what this life is about; that we might have joy, and the way we avhieve joy is by learning to love everyone unconditionally.

    Be ye therefore perfect, applies to how we love. When love perfectly we become perfect. When we can all love perfectly we have Zion. When we discriminate against anyone, we are refusing to love unconditionally.

  13. April 26, 2016 at 5:54 am

    How much do I have to pay the video to skip ahead? ;-)

  14. BW
    April 26, 2016 at 8:42 am

    Can the superorganism model be extended to encompass a multitude of Christian faiths, all different, working together as the larger body of Christ? Our LDS church clearly has a well-defined leader – a queen ant, if you will. So maybe it isn’t right to see our LDS church as a superorganism. In contrast, the collection of Christian churches does not have a well-defined leader, but can work in complementary ways to bring Christ to individuals – perhaps a superorganism of its own.

  15. Clark Goble
    April 26, 2016 at 10:47 am

    BW in a certain way you can consider all humanity as single superorganism. It’s more what you’re trying to say with that metaphor.

  16. Walter van Beek
    April 26, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Trying to flesh out the notion of Zion always is stimulating, especially when done as a thought experiment. Because that is what we are in here, I think, and for many reasons that is where we should leave it at.
    I am a little – more than a little – astonished to read that we do not know how to construct a society, if I understand you correctly. As a social scientist myself, I always thought that the processes that form, maintain and threaten a society form the main topic of our disciplines. Political science, economy,history, all concerned with those very questions. We do not build societies like we build computers, mainly because they are already there, but we know a lot about how they operate, change, evolve, thrive and may eventually go under.

    The notion of a superorganism in fact for a long time been used in those approaches, and it worked, up to a point. In sociology and anthropology we did use this notion till the late ’70s, but it had a few fatal flaws. The organismic model was too well-integrated, too harmonious and too impervious for change. I wonder how you relate to this part of the history of social theory and how you want to overcome these flaws. How can an (super-)organismic model incorporate rapid change, technological evolution, strife and leave enough room for individual agency?

    Of course, building societies has been done over and again, especially in your part of the world, the USA. Mormonism stems from an utopian experiment, indeed called Zion, but that element floundered right away, even when Brigham Young tried to resuscitate it. Rember all the other ones, the Shakers, Amana, Oneida. Even when the Mormons left Nauvoo, the closest they actually came to Zion, another utopian experiment took over ‘our ruins’, the Icarians. Statistically the half life of such an engineered society is about 2 years, like ours. Actually, our Community of Christ brothers have done better, their Harvest Hills Zionic community, close to the ‘Center Place’, still is functioning after 30 years. Recently, a PhD candidate of mine defended his thesis on this community, Brian Monte ‘Tiny Zion’ (Groningen 2015), I can recommend it. But this is ‘Zion light’, just dwelling together, and might well be the only viable way for any utopian striving. Maybe this is my European thinking, but in 1989 we were freed of the largest of all superorganic experiments in the history of mankind, when the Berlin wall fell.

    In Joseph’s view Zion was first and for all a city, a beacon, a small community set inside a non-Zion environment. That phase has passed, and engineering a full blown society, actually trying to do so, produced one of the most oppressive systems of all times.
    A thought experiment, yes, but let us never, never try to really ‘do’ it, ever again.(Am I now horribly non-transhumanist?)

  17. Matt
    April 26, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Your discussion of perfectly ultrasocial reminded of this quote from A Short Stay in Hell by Stephen Peck.

    “But somehow I feared the defining point of this Hell was its unrelenting uniformity, its lack of variation from type. If there was a heaven at the end of this, it must be filled with great variety, perhaps a multiplicity of intelligent species spread across universes. Yes, heaven would be as full of difference as Hell was of sameness.”

  18. April 26, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    True Blue 7, Thanks, and I agree. To be perfect is to not to be omniscient, omnipotent, or even morally flawless. Perfection is, to me, in the gospel context, to love and help make whole all those within your stewardship. Not to impose a rigid religious system, but to bring out the authentic individual. And it takes all the work and wit and love I have to do that just for those closest to me.

  19. April 26, 2016 at 5:02 pm


    And what should we think about vestigial parts, extra parts, apparently accidental parts? Bodies are messy, complicated, not perfectly well designed. Evolution is more about accidents that are good enough for survival than about a trivially defined perfection.

    All of which leads me to think of Zion as a quality of society that we move toward or away from, but not something that we achieve.

    Thanks, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I do think it’s possible to achieve something like an ideal Zion even if our starting point is pretty messy. Part of that depends on the exact meaning of “ideal,” of course. I’m not invested in something a Platonic ideal of Zion, a mathematically perfect rendition. What I do have in mind, however, is some kind of qualitative shift that would mark a real, perceptible difference between “almost there” and “we’ve arrived.”

  20. April 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    I do think there are aspects to the superorganism approach that are novel based on recent advances in complexity theory, but I also agree that the roots go deep and it didn’t come out of nowhere.

  21. April 26, 2016 at 5:05 pm


    I think your observations are good ones.

  22. April 26, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Har har. :-P

  23. April 26, 2016 at 5:06 pm


    Can the superorganism model be extended to encompass a multitude of Christian faiths

    I think that’s another great question. My short answer? Yes.

  24. April 26, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    I really need to read that book!

  25. April 26, 2016 at 5:16 pm


    Couple of thoughts. First, I believe that there are real and substantial (even crucial) distinctions between a superorganism view and an organismic view, primarily dealing with what you mentioned: “The organismic model was too well-integrated, too harmonious and too impervious for change.”

    A large portion of my draft dealt with exploring these distinctions, but it was cut for the sake of time. I will return to it in a follow-up post here at T&S and tackle the issue head on. As it stands, however, your criticism is well-taken.

    As for this:

    I am a little – more than a little – astonished to read that we do not know how to construct a society, if I understand you correctly.

    It seems to me that you actually agree with my assessment, as you point out the rather abysmal success rate for engineered societies. To me, that demonstrates rather plainly that we can’t build societies, at least not deliberately. Of course, we do build societies all the time, but we do so instinctively, for the most part. Matt Ridley wrote, “Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature. It is as much a product of our genes as our bodies are.” Now, I think he goes a little too far, but in general: he’s correct. We don’t intentionally build languages, but we speak. We don’t intentionally build societies, but we inhabit them.

    I also understand your dim view of “engineered societies.” For me, they fall in the same category as “planned economies.” The track record goes from farce to nightmare. But this also underscores the essential differences between the pre-complexity theory “organismic” theories–which relied on top-down, centralized, command-and-control notions of coordination and regulation–and the concepts of spontaneous order, self-organization, and emergence that have only started to become available to us since the 1970s.

    It is my contention–which I have yet to defend or even outline in any great detail–that we have available insights now that were not accessible to prior generations that may give us hope, not of repeating the failures of Utopian experiments of bygone eras–but of embarking on a genuinely new experiment.

  26. John A.
    April 26, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    Walter, what are your referring to with this comment: “engineering a full blown society, actually trying to do so, produced one of the most oppressive systems of all times.” What system do you mean?

  27. April 27, 2016 at 9:21 am


    You should check out David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everybody and Darwin’s Cathedral and a really interesting evolutionary account of superorganisms such as religion. His account of group selection as responsible for morality provides a very nice counter-weight to the much more individualistic evolutionary accounts of religion.

  28. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 9:52 am

    To be of one heart and one mind is NOT to emulate a hive model or corporate structure. It is to be your authentic self, to become your own transcendent individuality.

    Umm. Do you see the conflict here in terms of the normal senses of the words you are using? The whole point of a functioning superorganism is how the parts and whole are related which tends to be completely at odds with how most people understand authentic. Now if by transcendent individuality you actually mean an individuality whose individuality comes from transcendence – that is from outside the self in terms of the whole then that would work.

    It’s fine to take the position you do of course. Many people do. But how you relate that to the superorganism Nathaniel is using as an image seems dubious.

    Now of course the organism metaphor doesn’t mean the individual is the copy of the parts or even the whole. However the metaphor, whether of a bee hive, ant colony, slime mold or whatever, implies that the parts have their meaning and purpose in terms of the whole. They may have an unique function but that function comes not out of the self but out of the whole.

    I’d add that it’s reconciling the individual to this sense of whole that I find problematic about the metaphor. So in certain ways I’m with you. However I think we should be clear that there are these two very opposed metaphors at work.

  29. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 10:03 am

    While the heyday of emergence and complexity certainly has been since the 70’s I think the ideas are quite a bit older. Obviously Hayek plays a big role in that history but you can find the idea going back at least to Descartes if not earlier. Smith’s “invisible hand” is really the same idea. Certainly once you have the ideas of evolution then self-organization is a natural corollary. You see the ideas even in that first generation of thinkers in the late 19th century. (Obviously I’m partial to C. S. Peirce here whose semiotic approach to complexity remains important but there are many others)

    The distinction between organism and superorganism some have mentioned is important. In the original post I liked Nathaniel’s mention of slime mold. That is so interesting since at some times the parts live more or less independently and then can come together so they appear to be a single creature. Way back in high school I did an experiment where you train a slime mold in a simple maze. Once it’s trained you chop up the pieces and “feed it” to an other slime mold. Abracadabra the new slime mold knows how to run the maze. It’s a fascinating creature precisely because of that ability to separate and be individuals. (Also because the parts are themselves so simple)

    As a metaphor slime mold is just so fascinating. Arguably far more than things like bee hives or ant colonies precisely because there is more independence.

  30. April 27, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    I’m with Clark on this one. Any attempts at construing such passages in terms of a post-enlightenment “authenticity” are transparent attempts at reading our modern values into these pre-modern texts.

  31. April 27, 2016 at 2:26 pm


    While the heyday of emergence and complexity certainly has been since the 70’s I think the ideas are quite a bit older.

    From a certain point of view, modern particle physics goes back to Democritus, right? And before we had physics and chemistry and biology we just had natural philosophy. But particle physics isn’t the same thing as Democritu’s atomism and evolutionary biology is not the same thing as natural philosophy.

    And so I’m sticking with Rear Admiral Grace Hopper on this one: “Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems.” Something has changed since roughly the 1940s, and chaos theory (in the 1970s, now complexity theory today) holds out the promise of a becoming a genuinely new discipline with genuinely new insights.

    I’ll be writing about this more.

  32. April 27, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Darwin’s Cathedral has been on my list for a while. So many books. So little time.

  33. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I always found particle physics to be much more like Stoicism. 19th century atomic theories like Priestly’s were very much like the Greek atomists – albeit missing the crucial notion of “swerve” or randomness. (Up and down have a different meaning in Newtonian gravitation than the atomic theories had. But they were arguably close enough) Anyway particle physics really ends up being field theories, especially by the time you hit the 1950’s. And field theories, including quantum field theory end up being remarkably like Stoic physics and ontology. BTW – a great book on the relation and similarity of ancient and contemporary views is Richard Sorabji’s Matter, Space, and Motion: Theories in Antiquity and Their Sequel. There are differences of course. Not the least is the logic and mathematics. The basic ontological ideas though are really not that different.

    To the “life was simple” I think I’d just respond, “to whom?” I think what happened is that technology became complex enough that what was relegating to the thinking of individual philosophers and scientists suddenly became necessary to deal with by more and more people. Today complexity theory is largely unavoidable. Once people could work under the illusion things were not so complex. (Again, just because he’s one of my favorite philosophers, I’d note the connection between C. S. Peirce and systems theory – but many of Peirce’s insights were not widely known at the time partially due to the unfortunate politics keeping him largely out of academia later in his life)

  34. April 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Good choice. I had it on my bookshelf for a couple years before I actually read it. When I did finally get around to reading it, however, I immediately regretted my waiting. Sadly, it’s title and jacket summary just don’t pique the interest as much as they could.

  35. April 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm


    The ongoing complexity revolution is much more revolutionary then you give credit for. It’s more than just “Oh, well, now we have to deal with complexity we could ignore before.” It’s really seeing the world in a different way. I think one of the examples of this is something like Conway’s Game of Life. That you could attain such an incredible degree of complex behavior with such incredibly simple rules is really kind of mind-blowing, and belies the idea that this is just same-old, same-old. All ideas have precursors. No discoveries come out of nowhere. But this is a legitimately novel and promising field within those caveats.

  36. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Nathaniel, it’s revolutionary both because its implications are being traced farther (although I think you might underestimate just how far these earlier thinkers had taken it) but also because it’s unavoidable. So it transforming how people think because they so often have to think through it. Take an example of emergent complexity like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. It was a major transformative notion. Yet arguably how many economists prior to Hayek really took it so seriously so as to transform how they thought? Precious few. Which was why the top down command and control theory of the economy reigned supreme arguably as late as the 1970’s.

    So don’t mistake me. I fully agree it’s a transformative concept and that it didn’t really change thinking to the degree it should have until the 1970’s and arguably really not until the late 80’s did it reach a critical mass. The transformation such that even popular shows about science had to include the notions happened in my life time. That said, Readers Digest was printing abridged forms of Hayek’s views decades earlier. And within more narrow disciplines complexity and systems thinking was engaged before that. Just not as much as it should have been.

    I think my difference with you is I see this less as a revolution happening in a short time so much as a slow understanding of many issues starting first at the dawn of modernism and then more significantly in the late 19th century. It’s problematic to point to a particular point, whether it be the 1940’s with the beginning of thinking through computational issues or the 1970’s and 80’s when chaos and formal emergence get considered more carefully. It’s a problem precisely because we then miss how complexity and emergence are so key to earlier ideas, like the “invisible hand.” That the implication and power of these ideas was neglected seems undeniable. That those ideas entail these issues can’t be neglected though.

    Something like Conways game of life perhaps demonstrates these things better for the popular mind than what came before could. As do things like fractals. But it’s important not to conflate the popular recognition of issues with the ideas where they originate. The rise of chaos theory, for instance, in the 80’s certainly is far more detailed than what came before. More significantly it gives relatively concrete mathematical models for how these things work. But the invisible hand entailed by game theory is just as much a demonstration of complexity and was decades earlier.

    Perhaps this is just me being pedantic though. Yet I think it is just very hard to grapple with the ideas of Darwin, Peirce, or Smith without inherently having to deal with just these issues of complexity, networks, and emergence.

  37. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    BTW I just noticed a great collection of early writers on emergence and complexity is available online as a PDF. Emergence, Complexity, and Self-Organization: Precursors and Prototypes. It includes essays tied to the subject by Peirce, Whitehead, the British “Emergentists” Samuel Alexander, C. Lloyd Morgan, and C. D. Broad. It also includes major works of more recent figures like Sellars, Bertalanffy and others. It’s well worth reading by people if they’re interested in the subject.

  38. April 27, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    Hi Clark,

    Yes. I see. And it was on purpose, though the end result appears to be a mixed metaphor, so you’re point is well taken. (I was an English Lit undergrad who always favored the Romantics, so a penchant for some mixed metaphor might be a weakness of mine.)

    I am well aware that in a complex organism the parts obtain their meaning from the whole. Me and my nucleotides are grateful for this. For me Zion is a different kind of organism, and this was the point I was trying to make. Zion comes to be when the whole derives its meaning from the parts. This is why I used the image of a scale-invariant fractal, and followed up with the example of the atonement. The power of the atonement works because it is the process of cosmic divinity coming in direct relationship with the parts, and meets those parts on their own terms. The whole only derives its meaning in this kind of relationship. By transcendent individuality I meant to be a Christ, which ultimately means one derives their meaning from the grace and sacrifice of their cross.

    Clark, these are real differences I was trying to make. We treat the atonement like a corporatized superorganism. Such an approach can build a robust church and working community which can give only the illusion of Zion, but does so at the expense of creating a vast cult of personality for its leadership and a wispy cult of warm fuzzies for its theology. That which works for the whole (church and community) often sterilizes the potential for the individual, and thus the individual is given the most marketable product of Zion in a strict and obvious command structure and a belief system set up to produce emotional comfort like a spiritualized Soilent Green. (Oh come on now, that was a great mixed metaphor.) People are not ants and bees. And Zion is not slime mold. I am working the metaphor the other way.

  39. April 27, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    As far as Jeff G, if you are referring to the scriptures as the pre-modern texts to which I am applying post-enlightenment authenticity….well, okay, I have no problem with that. I must also add that I said that Zion is a historical construct and therefore apt for temporal arbitrary construction. In the end I am with Walter on this one, Zion is a great thought-experiment.

    I will tell you that my ideas of Zion really come from the temple. The great thing about the temple is no one is lecturing or sermonizing and one is happily capable of transparently applying whatever ethos they wish upon the experience, despite the man in the funny hat snoring next to me….

    By my way of thinking, one only comes to Zion at the Veil. Here, and only here, is Zion.

    And look at what one has had to do to get there. One had to transcend the Telestial plane by living the Law of the Gospel: learning to be obedient to the commandments of God. By living the Law of the Gospel you build a true church. Here is your superorganism. But this is not Zion. One had to transcend the Terrestrial plane by living the Law of Chastity, which does not just refer to sex, but to appropriate living in all of one’s stewardships. This living is church, justice, and equity in community. But this is not Zion.

    One approaches Zion only in the Celestial Order by living the Law of Consecration. That’s the key. And what is the Law of Consecration? Well, every time I hear it taught in SS I am told that it is the equal and equitable distribution of my 401K. This is of course only a Telestial vision of Zion, which, if I might say, is perhaps the most comical mixed metaphor of the evening (or of the Age, I forget which). The Law of Consecration is that final act in which Christ nailed the hopes of the whole onto the infinite potential of the individual by taking on—literally—my own moral nucleotides as his singular consideration. The Law of Consecration is Atonement. And Zion can only be built upon this Law.

    Well, anyway, that’s how I see it.

  40. Clark Goble
    April 27, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    John I can appreciate that view a lot. Fundamentally you are disagreeing with Nathaniel. (That’s where I was confused – it seemed like you were saying you agreed with him and then used a metaphor that seemed completely opposed to him) I’m actually sympathetic to many aspects and as I said find parts of the organism or super-organism problematic. (After all if we’re parts of the body of Christ who wants to be the armpit?)

    The slime mold metaphor seemed better to me than the ant or bee metaphor precisely because of how the parts to whole are organized that’s different from bees or ants with their queen. After all if heaven is being a drone, who wants heaven? The idea of parts that can come together for tasks seems much more compelling.

    That said I confess the idea of bottom up emergence seems wrong too. If only because Zion does have God and Christ in a key position. I’m not sure the factal metaphor works because it gets the direction of the imaging wrong.

    Regarding Zion as an arbitrary construct I’m not quite sure what you mean. Again this gets into certain issues with emergence. To use an example from an other thread, it seems like wings evolve independently time and time again and with very different creatures. As such it seems like while wings might be an arbitrary historical construction in an other sense they represent something atemporal to which things tend given a certain environment.

    I’m not sure if you are referring to Zion in a manner akin to the evolution of eyes or wings or if you’re referring to Zion more akin to the rules of some arbitrary sports game. If the former I’m all with you. As such Zion as structure is timeless in important ways. If you mean the latter then I’ll strongly disagree.

  41. April 28, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    Yes, I was disagreeing with NG, respectfully so. And quite often I feel as if I have inherited the armpit of Christ. Go figure.

    I believe the fractal metaphor is the best I can come up with because it is multi-directional. Scale invariance means what occurs at one level is a very real reflection of what is occurring at another, whether your go up or down, right or left, bigger or smaller, more complex or simpler.

    However, I like very much your metaphor of emergence. Taking this as a cue, Zion becomes the wings that spontaneously emerge at the Cross. Zion is not so much a consciously constructed society from the corporate ladder, as much as it is a emergent consequence of conscious sacrifice for another. Something to think about anyway….

    All metaphors will have their limitations. What I can say for sure is that Zion is not a bank, it is not a department store, and it is not the Church. It is this last fact that should give one pause and long reflection in our thought experiments.

    Always a pleasure to talk with Clark. Your math background impels precision. My background sort of simmers in aesthetic ambiguity that exists somewhere between the realms of reason and faith. So, I enjoy your comments as they seek to refine and define ever narrower units of knowledge, despite the fact that theology very often resists such categorization.

  42. Clark Goble
    April 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Yeah the reason I dislike the fractal metaphor is because fundamentally fractals as a repeating pattern arise because of simple rules that then manifest in repeating patterns. Yet it happens to to that simple inherent structure. The problem is that freedom undermines the place of inherent structure. You want the image of Christ in the individual and yet the image of the individual in Christ (and by extension each individual Christ is one with). That is you want a highly networked node structure. But that’s just not what fractals all. (Obviously my math nerd is coming out now. I fear I’m being to pedantic again.)

    While I think the “follow the prophet no matter what” can cause problems (and it’s not hard to find examples) I often think as a practical matter the problem is not following the prophet enough. And I say that looking at myself and where I fall down relative to counsel heard over the pulpit the last 20 years. For instance to pick one that I think is hugely important, yet hugely neglected, I’ve been horrible at my home teaching the past six months. I have excuses due to being ridiculously busy and out of town a lot. But ultimately I’m not sure the excuses are anything but self-justification. (Appointment made for this weekend though)

    The discussion, especially on blogs, about “follow the prophet” quickly devolves into all too typical political debates. And that’s where the real issue usually is on these things. Yet on the things the prophets actually show they see as most important by talking about the most, I’m not sure we are doing a good job with. That we can look to the political as a way of repressing the non-political is deeply troubling to me.

    On those issues of Zion it seems like we’re worrying about things that, while perhaps important, are dwarfed by how practically we’re worried about each other in our wards. I just don’t think we do a good job there and at night I often point the finger first at myself. If you see a ward that seems to be more Zion, it’s those simple things they typically are doing better and not the sorts of debates you hear of on blogs.

  43. April 28, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    I like the fractal metaphor. But I also like looking at fractals. There’s that aesthetic part of me again.

    I agree that most problems come from a lack of “following the prophet.” For the most part the Church has much more to offer than its set backs and sins (and these are not small). Still, in a world where so many organizations are set up only for themselves, an imperfect Mormon Church is a good thing to have and to hold on to.

    I can say that I have become increasingly uncomfortable in how the teaching “follow the prophet” is taught in Utah County Mormonism however. It went from “follow the prophet” to “follow the prophet no matter what” to “follow the prophet no matter what even if he tells you to do something wrong.” I have heard this preached not infrequently. It is disturbing and shows a cultural infantilism that is a product of obedience without knowledge. At the end of this road is not Zion, but something closer to Al Qaeda.

    I think it is a trend that should be nipped in the butt, knowing, that such a thing must be done from the top down. So much for my idea of Zion.

    This “prophet-topia” is of course the exact opposite of the teaching of Christ, and is very much central to Walter’s arguments for the story of Abraham. Indeed, the way Abraham is taught in the church feeds the latter ideology that one should follow the prophet even if he tells you to sacrifice your own child. This is disturbing. And the fact that I’ve heard this taught not just from the random Elders, but also from Bishops and leaders, shows that this is a deep seated cultural problem.

    I understand that this thinking is well intended. But good intentions pave the way to suffering. Just look at the BYU Honor Code Office fiasco. Here is putting the cart before the horse. Whatever that young woman did to break the honor code pales in comparison to what the HCO did to that woman. And you know what, had that woman not stood up and spoke out for herself such behavior would have just kept going on as if it were not only normal but also moral! How quickly we bureaucratize the gospel. More disturbing, such things are actually a little more common than one might expect, judging from how I have seen Bishops handle various moral issues. Sometimes its a little funny. Sometimes disturbing. And sometimes just sick. Alas, the Church needs better training for their leaders. And if not that, then we need to stop teaching the infallibility of these leaders, at any level. And now.

    Blogs are blogs. I take everything I read here with a grain of salt. And I take every comment I write here with a mustard seed. I only read T&S as something to think about besides the normal tedium I get in Church (yes Clark, during Sacrament Meeting I’ll probably be thinking about spontaneous emergence and Zion). But practically speaking, Church has so much to offer. Above all, I like practicality.

  44. Clark Goble
    April 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    I think that really varies from ward to ward. I’m cautious about drawing too many inferences from my own ward. I’ve (surprisingly) been here mostly since my mission and I’ve just never encountered that as a teaching. I’m not saying it’s not out there mind you. Just that I don’t think we have a good way of gauging how common it is.

    I don’t want to bring the whole honor code debate in, I’ll just say that I don’t think the honor code office has ever been terribly good. However I worry some want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should definitely demand a better performing office. A lot of internal reform is needed, but not knowing what their internal policies and regulations are nor how well they follow them I can’t say much there. However I’m far from convinced that has much to do with following the prophet or not following the prophet.

    Regarding leaders, I’ve definitely been around good ones and bad ones. My wife was actually told by her Bishop to break up with me which four kids and 13 years and a lot of love later I think has been pretty well disproved. It seemed inappropriate at the time. I’ve also had a few kafkaesque dealings with leaders. But by and large most have been great, loving and doing a job I couldn’t even remotely imagine doing as good a job at. If ever there were a calling I don’t want to have it’s Bishop. The amount of time demanded of lay members is staggering. It’s a lot of responsibility and they already to a surprising amount of training. Yet people bring their biases, misunderstandings and bad habits. Typically what shocks me aren’t the occasional egregious leader than the fact we have so few of them. When you consider how many Bishops there are just in the US over a 15 year period, it’s startling we don’t have far more problems than we do. Which isn’t to excuse the problems we have – we should always be striving to improve. Still, it’s kind of remarkable to me how well people do in the callings.

  45. JR
    April 29, 2016 at 10:35 am

    “Regarding the Church and hierarchy, while the Church has top down features by and large (IMO) most of what they’re doing is trying to get people to figure things out on their own.”

    Clark, In view of the volume and repetition of “follow the prophet” and “obedience is the first law of heaven,” and in view of such things as “[only] one earring per ear (for women, none for men) is sufficient” (per GBH) being made a rule and exalted by an apostle into a standard for rejecting a developing relationship, and in view of recurring appeals to authority rather than thought, and in view of pronouncements such as President Nelson’s [in]famous Hawaii speech, Elder Oaks’ declarations as to what will never change, etc., I fail to see a reasonable basis for your opinion. Perhaps the volume and consistency of repetition of the contrary examples is not the same in your circles as in mine. Here, I would have to say that it appears, in recent decades, that most of what the hierarchy is doing is announcing that they have it all figured out, that people are responsible to seek personal confirmation from God which is only from God if it matches what the hierarchy has already figured out and announced. I hope someday to perceive a basis for your expressed opinion. Maybe you’ll be willing to explain further.

  46. JR
    April 29, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Nathaniel, the superorganism concept of Zion is attractive. So is the “dessert island.” :) I’m thinking of having mine catered by a Parisian patisserie; none of those dry, fluff American cakes for me!

  47. Clark Goble
    April 29, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    JR (1.4) given how the church body often largely ignored such counsel, don’t your examples establish my point not your point?

  48. JR
    April 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Clark, (1.5). No. Even assuming “the church body often largely ignored such counsel,” what the church body does with teachings from the hierarchy cannot be evidence of what the hierarchy is trying to get them to do.

  49. Walter van Beek
    April 30, 2016 at 4:35 am

    John A. The major experiment was of course communism, the epitome of a planned society and also of a continuously planning society. The only remaining one is North Korea, that says it all.
    Nathaniel: yes the planned societies might have failed because they are usually monodimensional, based upon simple and often naive theories of both societal organization and human nature. But, speaking from cultural comparison, all cultures presently existing are already successful experiments in living; the failed ones are no longer with us, the argument underlying Sloane Wilson’s book. I taught from it in my last course. But each of these successful experiments came about by tinkering, by trial and error, by hard thinking and hard working. My point is that we are already inside such an experiment, and keep improving on an ever more complicated system. Not only there is no way of starting anew as we all come with heritage, but any to-be-developed new society (or superorganism) would have to echo the successes of our present experiment and tinker with the to-be-improved-upon elements. Just like we do now

  50. Wesley Dean
    May 4, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    I think the one heart we’re to have is God’s heart (Moroni 7:45-48, and really the whole chapter; 1 Nephi 1:10-12; 1 Nephi 11:21-25), and the one mind is His mind (2 Nephi 32:5). Really simple, and really hard.

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