Don’t get touchy when I ask. I don’t mean to get under your skin. I just want the skinny about your response to the word “super-organism.” Do you imagine a ripped sexy bionic body? Or does your fancy go to a genetic engineer’s laboratory? Maybe you simply see red capes and spandex with logos.
As I see it, a super-organism is an organism consisting of many organisms. The technical Wiki definition is: “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.”
Anthills and bee hives are examples of super-organisms. Each individual is clearly a part of an enterprise larger than itself. Each creature has its own job to do to benefit the greater community.
Some examples of these phenomena are uncanny. Consider the deluded singularity of the sponge.
If a living sponge is passed through a sieve into water, the individual cells will float about, flailing it seems, until they reconstitute themselves, good as new as if nothing has happened, into another sponge.
Even uncannier is the naked mole rat. These creatures live underground in the tough, dry conditions of East Africa. They cleverly cope with dire lack of environmental resources. A single tuber can be a food source over many years because only the inside of the tuber is eaten. This allows the tuber to regenerate, creating a kind of underground feeding of the multitudes miracle. Naked mole rats are also amazing in other ways: They have the longest rodent life span: 28 years. They are cancer resistant. And due to the absence of a neurotransmitter, they do not receive pain signals from their skin.
If this were not enough to make a claim to fame, there is more. The naked mole rat community is a mammalian superorganism. Like bees and ants, each colony has one queen mother, from one to three studs, and many workers. The workers are larger, sterile and more reactive to the environment.
Each individual naked mole rat can also be seen as a kind of super-organism. Each one is, after all, made up of cells. Cells are the basic functional units of life, the smallest unit that is classified as a living thing.
So we could view all multi-cellular life forms as super-organisms.
The goal of the NIH Human Microbiome Project is identifying and characterizing the microbial flora of humans. The number of non-human cells found in a body outnumbers the human body cells ten to one. The non-human genes outnumber body genes by a hundred to one. Human cells are minorities in their own super-organism.
Of the five body sites of focus in this project, the one of most interest to me is the skin. In the two square meters of skin covering each human, there are over a thousand species of bacteria from 19 different phyla. Each alien skin squatter brings to the skin its own unique contribution. I particularly enjoy the ones who create the uniquely lovely softness of the inside of the arm in front of the elbow. Just feel right there right now.
The common enterprises of the human skin cells and of the majority skin aliens include protection, temperature regulation and evaporation functions. But the usual view is that all these skin aliens and their human skin cellular minority neighbors work together to create the frame of the human body, the barrier that both defines and separates that body from the world surround.
But I do not want to grasp at this conceptualization .
For me, the beauty of skin is not the separating, but the possible interfacing. Intertriginous areas, skin areas within a body that can touch or rub, like armpits or cleavage or buttocks, compel. But more compelling is the possibility of contact with the skin of the other. The movement from wall and frame and barrier to emergent haptic communication interface is the touchstone of compassion and shared project. And ecstasy.
In the Gaia hypothesis, earth itself and its surrounding biosphere are also super-organism. In this view our complexly skinned singularity, touching and untouched, is mere component, not entire universe.
No one is left behind by the primordial Earth goddess who reveals the earth as a single organism. This gets under my skin. This touches me.
— Rx is the FloridaW eekly muse who hopes to inspire profound mutiny in all those who care to read. Our Rx ma y be wearing a pir ate cloak of in visibility, but emanating fr om within this shado w is hope that readers will feel free to respond. Who kno ws: You may e ven inspir e the muse. Make contact if you dare.