If you want to commit to the superorganism, sharing your mind is not enough.

When the concept of superorganisms come up in science fiction, we tend to focus on the mental aspect of it. The collective consciousness of a hivemind seems to fascinate us, as something alien and uncomfortable. Stories that explore telepathy often dwell on the flood of thoughts and feelings from other people, and the sense of distrust and invasion upon realizing our thoughts and feelings can be seen or heard by others. I now have the opportunity, through the hivemind of the internet, to implant a new concept within your brain.

Come, and open your mind to the concept of a “social stomach”. Let me share with you these findings from – and I’m not joking about this- The Laboratory of Social Fluids, in the Biology Department of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland:

“Individual ants have two stomachs — one for digesting their own food and another one that comes first, a ‘social stomach’ for storing fluids that they share with other ants in their colony. These fluid exchanges allow ants to share food and other important proteins that the ants themselves produce,” says senior author Adria LeBoeuf, Assistant Professor and leader of the Laboratory of Social Fluids at the Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

“To help us understand why ants share these fluids, we explored whether the proteins they exchange are linked to an individual’s role in the colony or the colony’s life-cycle,” adds lead author Sanja Hakala, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Fribourg.

The team analysed all of the ant-produced proteins found in the social stomachs of individual ants. They then compared how the proteins varied depending on whether the ant was a forager or a nurse caring for the colony’s young. They also investigated if the proteins varied depending on whether the ants were part of a new colony or a more established one.

I find this honestly fascinating. It immediately makes me think of discoveries about the ties between gut health and mental health, and such delightful treatments as fecal transplants to foster a better gut microbiome. Everyone talks about the dangers of artificial intelligence and The Singularity, but nobody seems to be paying much attention to the fact that we seem to be in the early stages of developing the option of a social intestine.

In a lot of ways, we’re already pretty comfortable with swapping our innards around. Organ transplants have been a fairly common thing for a long time now, and we’re getting better at processes like that. We also have some success with artificial organs like hearts or the “artificial kidneys” used in dialysis, but that’s still very focused on our individuality, and what’s contained within our person.

Perhaps, in my quest for a more harmonious society, I need to pay more attention to the field of social fluids. Humanity has achieved a great deal through division of labor, and maybe we should take a key from our more advanced compatriots, and look into things like the division of metabolic labor, too!

LeBoeuf concludes: “It is hard to measure how metabolic work is shared between cells. Here, the ants pass things around in a way that we can easily access what they are sharing. Having a better understanding of how ants share metabolic labour may help us learn more about the ways that other creatures, like humans, distribute metabolic tasks between different tissues or different cells in their bodies.

The singularity may be coming, but do we really think it’ll stop with a collective cyber-mind?

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  1. Allison says

    The collective consciousness of a hivemind seems to fascinate us, as something alien and uncomfortable.

    The funny thing is, human beings already have sort of a hive mind. We like to imagine that we are distinct personalities, but the thoughts and feelings of others affect us in ways that we are mostly unconscious of. We even recognize this, in terms such as “groupthink” and “mob psychology,” or when talk of “memes.” All involve thought processes that aren’t located in an individual, but are the product of many individuals receiving and emitting emotions and ideas.

    It shouldn’t be that surprising. Humanity is a social species, an individual can barely survive if not connected with other humans. Our success as a species is a result of us living in societies: the knowledge and skills that are passed on from person to person, as well as the strategies used by groups (e.g., hunters.) IMHO, one of the things we consider uniquely human, language, has as its main function to keep our minds in sync with one another and maintain our social structures. I.e., what we think of as small talk and gossip is probably its main function.

  2. says

    I want distribution of health in general. If I could harm my own health to bolster my chronically ill boyfriend’s, I would. I get a little worse mentally and physically, he gets a little better, and we’re only sorta miserable. Big improvement.

  3. says

    Yeah. Or if we could hook up to any diabetics short on insulin.

    @Allison – one of my favorite “hivemind” species is the Skritt from Guild Wars 2. They’re halfling-sized rat people that live collectively, and communicate constantly with squeaks that are out of the hearing range of other sapient creatures. They act as memory storage and processing for each other. One or two act like very stupid mischief-makers who’re obsessed with shiny things, but get enough of them together, and they can design and build machinery, and so on.

    I know they’ll never do it, but I’d love a playable race where instead of one character, you’re a group of little rat-people that grows as you level up.

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