We see humans collaborate in family structures and in some areas of the world even more extended in tribes. We see them collaborate in companies and all kinds of other types of groups or societies. But we tend to regard humans as individuals. How we assess the value of this individual or how it relates to the group or even has to relate to the group he is part of differs culturally.
But we do not see ourselves as a colony or a heard like we see other species together form them in all its diversity in nature. These joined life forms come in many forms and sizes.
One of the most peculiar colonies I know of is a colony of jellyfish. The individual jellyfish form a connected string of bodies where every jellyfish performs a specific and specialized function like a cell in our body. (NB In the same sense our bodies can be seen as a colony of cells.) These 30-meter long jellyfish colonies form an organism on its own. The question could be raised what is the principle organism? Is it the jellyfish that cannot survive on its own and cannot even physically detach from the colony, or is it the colony that is acting fully coordinated as if an individual?
Another example is an anthill. Here the collaborating ants are also specialized (i.e. queen, workers, soldiers) but are clearly able to walk around by themselves. But again what is the principle organism: the individual ant or the anthill? Together the ants form, what is called, a superorganism.
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time.[…] The technical definition of a superorganism is “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective,” phenomena being any activity “the hive wants” such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.
The ants are governed by only a limited set of rules to have the colony survive and to create new colonies. The individual ants only communicate in limited ways; one of them is the trace of pheromones they leave behind when going anywhere. Another ant will pick up the “smell” and will follow the other ant’s trail. Are these ants aware of these pheromones? No – not that we are aware of – but for the ants this is a very relevant mechanism to collaborate.
The amount of specialization we humans have created, and hence our dependence on each other is lost on most of us. We have achieved such a societal complexity the question could be raised if the individual is (still) the principle organism or that our societies are. Like an anthill we should regard our joined life form as a super-organism as well. Even though we see the world trough the eyes of the ants, the mechanisms at work apply to us ants but are effective because we form this superorganism.