Alternate (better) title: Becoming (multi)Human (thanks to Mark Frazier)
Perhaps the most momentous biological innovation next to the origin of life itself was when single-celled organisms evolved into multicellular ones. What were the specific survival advantages that promoted that transition? What were the small steps involved?
There are various mechanisms by which multicellularity could have evolved.
One hypothesis is that a group of function-specific cells aggregated into a slug-like mass called a grex, which moved as a multicellular unit. This is essentially what slime molds do. Another hypothesis is that a primitive cell underwent nucleus division, thereby becoming a syncytium. A membrane would then form around each nucleus (and the cellular space and organelles occupied in the space), thereby resulting in a group of connected cells in one organism (this mechanism is observable in Drosophila). A third hypothesis is that, as a unicellular organism divided, the daughter cells failed to separate, resulting in a conglomeration of identical cells in one organism, which could later develop specialized tissues. This is what plant and animal embryos do as well as colonial choanoflagellates. (Wikipedia/multicellular_organism)
In that context I’d like to discuss another possible phase-shift in the evolution of living systems that might be equally momentous– the multi-multicellular organism, and more specifically the multihuman organism or multihumanism. Theoretically, the multihuman organism is to the single-human organism as the multicellular organism is to the single-celled organism.
What would a multihumanism look like? How might it come about?
What it isn’t:
- It is not sociality or eusociality, although that is most certainly a prerequisite. Social structures or institutions like marriage, family, community, tribes, geopolitical states, religions, etc. are probably necessary precursors to multiorganism; but they are not it. Certain religious cults (YUCK!) may be as far as sociality alone can take us towards multihumanism. Hopefully those are no more than evolutionary false starts or dead ends.
- It is not asymmetric inclusion. Most multicellular organisms are hosts to a microbiome of other organisms that are typically of lower phylogenetic types–viruses, bacteria, and even multicellular parasites.
A multiorganism is a union of multiple organisms of the same or comparable type at a level that is more profound and stable than sociality alone. A multiorganism also reproduces in kind.
Consider the slime molds. Their properties and behavior seem to fluctuate between that of a social colony of single-celled organisms and a true multicellular organism. Highly eusocial insects (ants, bees, etc.) seem to approach or border on being multiorganisms.
So, again, what might a multiorganism of humans or a human multiorganism — a multihumanism — look like?
Hopefully not like “The Human Centipede.”
After all, even the cells in our bodies are not “stitched” together that rigidly. There is a wide range between extremes of structural rigidity or solidity, and structural flexibility or fluidity, in organisms. Existing examples of semi-multiorganism such as slime molds or ant colonies are very fluid in their physical structure. A multihumanism might be even more so, and yet its structure or configuration would be more spatially, functionally, and temporally coherent and stable than anything produced by sociality alone and it would have the ability to reproduce itself in kind.
Like the Human Centipede, the Borg is another example of a very, very bad multihumanism design. The somewhat libertarian creators of Star Trek viewed all forms of collectivism (except perhaps the United Federation of Planets) with extreme skepticism. So should we all as far as implementation details are concerned, but our skepticism should be of the scientific, open-minded type –not the closed-minded reactionary type.
Any proposal or plan for becoming (multi)human constitutes an extraordinary hypotheses and as such demands extraordinary proof of safety, efficacy, and general utility. At the very least we need approval from The Consumer Report, the Underwriters Laboratory, and a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
No matter what else we might imagine or suppose, things like love, empathy, compassion, etc. are essential for a multihumanism that will be palatable to its human constituents and consistent with their best interests.
The self-actualization and well-being of a multihumanism should not come at the cost of corresponding needs of the individual constituents. There must be a net increase in happiness and well-being.
[This essay is brought to you by coffee + Napoleon brandy]
- Group-Level Evolution and Information Systems: What Can We Learn From Animal Colonies in Nature? by Jaana Porra
- Welcome to the Mind-Meld: Our Future of Brain-to-Brain Communication
- Living Systems (amazon.com) by James Grier Miller (wikipedia.org) — This ground-breaking book explores, among other things, the way in which living systems are typically nested or recursive. Amazon.com says “This book has some of the characteristics of an encyclopedia. It presents and analyzes many diverse facts about cells, organs, organisms, groups, organizations, societies, and supranational systems, but it integrates all this knowledge into a single conceptual system. The book is a presentation of the state of current knowledge in all of the sciences relevant to these seven levels of living systems. It also provides a theoretical integration and a methodological approach to quantitative basic research, and how applied research and development can arise from this.”
- Living systems theory (pdf.theory1.net) — catalog of 42 online ebooks and pdf files including work by and about James Grier Miller
- Debate on Evolution of Multicellular Organisms Starts to Gain Focus (scientificamerican.com)
- New organism discovered: Finding will help scientists understand the origins of multicellular life (sciencedaily.com)
- thatssoscience: Slime mold was grown on an agar gel plate… (itsokaytobesmart.com)
- Early Cells, Early States (… and the future) (theadvancedapes.com)
On the Microbial Frontier, Cooperation Thrives (quantamagazine.org)
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