Minimum Viable Superorganism

Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.

Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.

If an alien film crew chose to feature our species in a nature documentary, they’d have plenty of spectacular superorganisms to choose from. Perhaps they’d spotlight the U.S. military, the most powerful superorganism ever to arise on our humble planet. Or the Catholic Church, a superorganism that’s managed to survive, with awe-inspiring continuity, for nearly two millennia. Meanwhile, impressive at smaller scales, the Boston Symphony Orchestra coordinates muscle movements to a precision of millimeters and milliseconds. And improv troupes like the Upright Citizens Brigade manage to arrange themselves into compelling scenes at the drop of a hat, all without any explicit coordination. Then there’s the superorganism responsible for the stable, secure, 20-million-line codebase that powers much of the world’s computing infrastructure — a loose affiliation of some 5,000 individuals, mostly strangers, who have somehow managed to assemble one of the most intricate artifacts ever built. As you might have guessed, I’m referring to the developers of the Linux kernel.

When thinking about our ability to form superorganisms, it’s tempting to dwell on the most extreme examples. These feats of coordination are so impressive, we can’t help but wonder how they’re accomplished. Unfortunately, if our goal is to understand what makes superorganisms tick, the extremes are all red herrings. We should be asking ourselves the opposite question: How do we achieve the simplest and least impressive feats of coordination?

In other words, what’s the minimum viable human superorganism?

In what follows, let’s try to build one from the ground up, with an eye toward a generic and scalable architecture.

Building a superorganism

First we’ll need some basic building blocks, i.e., individual organisms. By definition, a superorganism needs at least two individuals. But if we restrict ourselves to such a small, specific number, we’ll risk developing an architecture that won’t scale. Two people, for example, can rely on simple reciprocity — I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine — to coordinate their behavior. If we want a solution that will generalize, then, we should target 10 or 100 individuals, maybe more.

Now this is important: we have to assume that these individuals are entirely self-interested — that they don’t fundamentally care about the superorganism (or any other individuals) unless it’s somehow in their own interests. If we develop an architecture that doesn’t serve its members’ self-interest, it will inevitably break down as individuals realize they’re better off not participating. On the other hand, if we develop an architecture that succeeds in benefitting all or most of its members, there’s almost no end to what we’ll be able to accomplish.

Alright, now we need some reason for these selfish individuals to work together. Something they can accomplish more effectively as a team than as separate individuals. (Otherwise, what’s the point?) In other words, we need a shared goal.

In some cases, the goal might be stated explicitly: “Let’s do X!” But having an articulated goal is neither necessary nor sufficient. Many superorganisms manage to achieve goals without ever stating them explicitly. The Catholic Church, for example, amasses wealth and power as well as any superorganism, even though such goals aren’t part of its official charter. And on the flip side, a superorganism can’t impose a goal simply by fiat. A publicly-traded corporation is welcome to say that it wants to “make the world a better place,” but when push comes to shove, the company will prioritize shareholder value, the rest of the world be damned.

The more general case, then, is that a superorganism’s goals must arise from shared incentives. When individual members of the superorganism would benefit (on net) by achieving X, then X becomes a de facto goal, regardless of whether it’s officially articulated.

Now let’s pause for a moment to take stock of what we’ve gathered and what’s missing. So far we’ve rounded up some (selfish) individuals and made sure they have a shared goal arising from shared incentives. To make it concrete, let’s imagine these are 100 neighbors living out in the countryside, with the goal of building a fence around their neighborhood to keep out wild animals. Given that all 100 neighbors will benefit from having the fence, what’s preventing them from just building the bloody thing?

The issue, of course, is the free-rider problem. Why should I pitch in and break a sweat when I could kick back and let everyone else do the work? That way, I’ll reap all the benefits without paying any of the costs. Of course, if everyone thinks this way, no fence will get built. But what’s a selfish agent to do? I’m not going to build the whole thing myself. I’d sooner build a fence around just my own property.

This is not an academic objection. It’s existential. Would-be superorganisms fall apart all the time due to the free-rider problem. Every failure to take collective action, every tragedy of the commons — including global climate change — arises because of the free-rider problem. It’s the issue at the heart of every superorganism. “As we all know,” writes Peter Turchin, “selfish agents will never cooperate to produce costly public goods. I think this mathematical result should have the status of ‘the fundamental theorem of social sciences.’ ”

And our task, remember, is to find the minimal technique that can overcome the free-rider problem.

I’ll tell you what isn’t minimal: any kind of governance structure. The appeal of a government is that it can monitor and police everyone, rewarding hard workers and punishing slackers, thereby incentivizing each individual to cooperate. The problem is that it begs the question. For a government to act coherently, it needs to be a superorganism itself. And who will govern the governors? It’s an infinite regress.

Here’s another technique that sounds promising. Suppose we have one member of the group who can effectively dominate everyone else. Let’s call this the Strong Man architecture. Its appeal is that the Strong Man can be a government unto himself, no infinite regress required. Sounds great in theory, but in practice this architecture fails, because whenever one man is strong enough to rule by himself, he’s better off expropriating his subjects rather than cajoling them to work together. The temptation to be a tyrant rather than a leader is just too great. (And why can’t everyone else band together to resist his tyranny? Because then they would be acting as a superorganism.[1] There’s that damned infinite regress again.)

Bottom line: I know of only one minimum viable architecture for turning individuals into a superorganism [2] — for making sure it’s in everyone’s self-interest to work together. I call it the Prestige Economy,[3] and it runs on a deceptively simple rule:

Individuals should grant social status to others for advancing the superorganism’s goals.

That’s it. That’s the One Weird Trick that unlocks so much of our species’ cooperative potential.

Now I don’t expect you to buy this just yet. There’s more I need to explain. But first, notice how efficiently this solves the free-rider problem. In a Prestige Economy, people don’t work hard because of the benefit they’ll get when the superorganism achieves its goals (although it’s a nice bonus), but rather because of the status they’ll earn from their peers along the way. You’re perfectly welcome to shirk your duties in a Prestige Economy — you just won’t earn any kudos. And actually, if you shirk too much, others might be incentivized to notice and punish you, if in doing so they’ll be perceived as advancing the superorganism’s goals.

Consider the fable often used to illustrate collective action problems:

The Bell and the Cat [modified slightly for clarity]

Long ago, the mice held a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, some said that; but at last a young mouse stood up to announce his proposal. “You will all agree,” he said, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I therefore propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about.”

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all well and good, but who will bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke.

Apparently, even though they’ve learned to talk [4], these mice haven’t learned the trick to incentivizing collective action. If they were running a Prestige Economy, they’d simply offer more and more social status until someone — perhaps an ambitious young male mouse — eventually decided it was worth the risk. Sure, he might die trying to “bell the cat.” But if he succeeds, he’ll be welcomed back a hero! The other mice will fawn over him, hoist him up on their shoulders, buy him drinks, throw a banquet in his honor, and perhaps even carve out a leadership position for him. (I don’t want to make too much of this, but some of the lady mice might also want to have the hero’s babies.) So that’s the transaction. He’s not risking his neck to solve the cat problem. He’s doing it for the glory.

One small snag

Now, careful readers may have noticed something wrong with this architecture. In our attempt to solve one free-rider problem, we seem to have created another. Given a Prestige Economy, the issue is no longer how to incentivize people (or mice) to pursue the group’s interest, but rather how to incentivize them to grant status to others for pursuing it.

Here’s the trouble: the act of celebrating a hero isn’t entirely costless. It requires (a bit of) effort and sacrifice — buying the hero a drink, say, or throwing him a banquet. Point is, the hero’s perks don’t come out of thin air; they have to come from other individuals. And why should I bother to celebrate the hero, when I could just kick back and let the rest of you chumps celebrate him for me? I’ll continue to reap the benefits of his heroic deeds, but it won’t cost me a thing.

At first this looks like yet another question-begging infinite regress. Another promising architecture spoiled by game theory. But Nature has one more trick up her sleeve, perhaps her most subtle and ingenious trick yet.

Notice that, for humans, celebrating a hero doesn’t feel like a costly act. We don’t treat it like some annoying duty we’re always looking for an excuse to get out of. In fact, we’re happy and even eager to celebrate heroes. It just feels right and natural to us. And this kind of enthusiasm is the tell-tale sign of self-interest.

Nature, then, has endowed us with the instinct to celebrate heroes because it ultimately benefits us to do so. Yes, it costs money to buy someone a drink, but we’re getting something even more valuable in return: the chance to curry favor with a potential ally. And not just any ally, but one who has proven his worth, shown himself to be the kind of person who’s useful to have on one’s team. That’s why it behooves me to cozy up to the hero. Not because I’m motivated to help provide a public good (status for the hero), but because I’m hoping to make a valuable friend.

This is the magic of prestige status. From my perspective, I’m sucking up to the hero, hoping to cultivate an alliance. But from his perspective, my admiration is his reward. Ultimately, it’s this pair of incentives — prestige and celebration, seeking status and currying favor — that binds a superorganism together. They’re like the two interlocking sides of a Lego block.

Of course there are other ways to seek (and win) prestige status, outside the context of a superorganism. You might write a PhD thesis, for example, or run a marathon, or learn to play the piano. These individual achievements play a similar role in making you more attractive as an ally. It’s not that “helping a superorganism achieve its goals” is the only way to win prestige, just that it’s a particularly good way.

I should also note that “Prestige Economy” is only one way to formulate this idea. Other (refactored) formulations include competitive altruism, indirect reciprocity, enlightened self-interest, and the long literature on reputation. And reputation itself goes by many names and takes a variety of forms: honor, respect, status, prestige, karma, credit, esteem, even money. (“Money,” as I wrote elsewhere, “is industrial-grade prestige status.”) These are all slightly different ways of looking at the same thing.

To summarize, then, here’s our recipe for a minimum viable superorganism:

Selfish individuals pursuing shared goals (arising from shared underlying incentives), held together by a Prestige Economy which consists of two activities: (1) seeking status by attempting to advance the superorganism’s goals, and (2) celebrating (i.e., sucking up to) those who deserve it.

This architecture is robust. It creates selfish incentives for people to work together and reward others for their hard work.

Now let’s take a look at a few real-world superorganisms to see what light our new architecture can shed on how they hang together.


Most successful superorganisms rely on complicated architectures, with formal roles, charters, bylaws, governance structures, etc. But at least one type of superorganism approximates the minimal architecture we’ve been describing.

Consider a social movement like civil rights or feminism. Contrary to the naive model, no woman fights for feminism because of the individual benefit she might hope to achieve by making the world better for all women. Whatever impact she (alone) might have on the overall cause is infinitesimal, and it’s absolutely dwarfed by the effort she’ll have to put in. Without some other source of reward, it’s not worth lifting even a finger. She’d be better off free-riding.

Luckily there is another source of reward: prestige. By working on behalf of the feminist cause, she can earn herself a handsome reputation. She might give a rousing speech, for example, or write a persuasive article, or rally a thousand other women to the cause. These are all impressive feats that testify to her worth as an ally. She’ll become a hero of sorts, and will be duly celebrated for it. This is how individuals are incentivized to work hard to push a movement forward.

But note that her efforts have to meaningfully advance the cause (or at least appear to), or they won’t count as impressive. If she does something “in the name of” feminism that doesn’t actually help women — perhaps by blogging something that gets more eye-rolls than retweets — then she won’t get credit for it, no matter how hard she worked. Her failure will testify against her value as an ally. Do you want to team up with someone whose work is counterproductive, setting back the very goals she’s intending to work towards? Me neither.

Note that these incentives also explain why it often behooves men to be feminists. A male feminist would seem, on the surface, to be working against his self-interest.[5] But again, this is naive. His individual efforts aren’t going to tip the scales against his own gender. And in the meantime, as a feminist, he stands to earn meaningful status points from other feminists, male and female alike.

This dynamic underlies every “traitor” to his or her own demographic group: straights who support gays, whites who advocate for racial equality, and billionaires who endorse tax-hiking politicians. Psychologically, people typically support these causes because it’s “the right thing to do.” But a movement will only succeed when what’s “right” starts to align with its members self-interest.

Now, to the liberal sensibility, these side-switchers — men who support women, straights who support gays, etc. — don’t seem particularly traitorous. In fact they’re celebrated for it, largely because they’re seen as switching over to help the underdogs. But when someone switches the other way — abandoning the perceived underdog to seek status from the more powerful, privileged group — that’s when hackles get raised. Consider the sting of calling someone an “Uncle Tom,” for example, or the liberal disdain for poor people who vote to lower taxes on the rich.

I’m not trying to make a moral argument here. When people abandon their own demographic interests to join an opposing superorganism, the question I’m interested in is why they switch sides (not whether their actions are right or wrong). And the answer, I think, is that they intuitively perceive switching sides to be in their self-interest — a broad, overarching self-interest that includes not just their demographic interests (which they may be undermining), but also, crucially, their reputation among their peers and local elites.

Corporations vs. co-ops

At its heart, a modern corporation runs on the same superorganism architecture we’ve been describing. In exchange for doing work that advances the company’s goals, employees are granted social status, most of it in the form of money. But some compensation also takes the form of good old-fashioned prestige, i.e., the esteem of coworkers (often reified in fancy titles or corner offices). Either way, employees are rewarded for helping the company, regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails in achieving its goals.

Contrast this with the co-op model. Ten people (say) collectively own and operate a pizza restaurant, working there as employees and splitting profits evenly, 10 percent to each.

Without some other accountability scheme, the co-op is bound to fail. It’s just too tempting to free-ride. Who wants to do 10 percent of the work (or more) when they could do nothing and still reap 10 percent of the profits? That’s right, no one. Game theory is a harsh mistress.

Luckily, lurking underneath the formal architecture of the co-op is a more robust informal architecture: the Prestige Economy. A co-op owner who free-rides earns no status in the eyes of his fellow owners. His reputation takes a nose-dive. At some point, everyone else will make it nasty enough for the freeloader that he’ll be pressured to sell his stake back to the group. So a co-op can hang together — not because of its formal architecture, but in spite of it.

Something similar happens when startups compensate their employees with stock options in addition to salary. The naive model says that startup employees work extra hard in order to make their options more valuable. But this is nonsense. Instead, stock options incentivize hard work by a more circuitous route. By granting options to all employees, the company ensures that everyone has a strong shared incentive in the success of the company, which then enables a Prestige Economy to develop. And at the end of the day (literally), it’s prestige that keeps people toiling away at the office.

Faceless superorganisms

Now this is all well and good, but it hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know. Is there some larger payoff?

For me, the answer is a resounding yes. The superorganism architecture outlined above is the solution to a problem I’ve grappled with for many years: How can we make sense of shadowy forces like the Man, the Global Elite, the Military-Industrial Complex, or the Deep State? Is it legitimate to model these as superorganisms, pursuing their shared interests with non-zero agency? Or are they mere figments of our imagination, caused by the same quirk of human psychology that leads us to see faces in rocks and gods controlling the weather?

We frequently talk about these entities as if they were superorganisms. In Mike Lofgren’s 2014 article on the Deep State, he describes it as “essentially parasitic,” with an “appetite” for tax money. He even ascribes tactics to it: “crying ‘terrorism!’ every time it faces resistance,” for example. This is the language of agency, intentionality, and goal-directed action. But is it more than just a metaphor? And if so, how do we explain these superorganisms in terms of individual incentives?

Our minimal architecture provides an answer. I’m not convinced it’s the only answer, or even the best one, but it’s concrete and specific enough for my tastes. It says that, yes, it’s possible for these entities to have real agency. And it’s implemented just like any other superorganism: by means of shared interests giving rise to a Prestige Economy.

Note, however, that these shadowy forces are even more hamstrung than social movements like feminism. They’re not just headless (lacking formal leaders) and amorphous (lacking clear roles and even clear membership). They’re also faceless. I mean this literally: they lack “face” in the Chinese sense, the same sense described by Erving Goffman in Interaction Ritual. They have no official name, no acknowledged members, no honor, no reputation, and no shame. No one acts “in the name of” the Global Elite, for example. When Lofgren criticizes the Deep State and calls for citizens to dismantle it, the Deep State can’t offer so much as a peep in its defense. This facelessness is a natural response to a hostile PR environment (no one wants to publicly affiliate with these causes), but it clearly makes it harder to achieve the status of a coherent superorganism.

The cartoon explanation for how these groups manage to act as superorganisms is by conspiracy. (From the Latin con-, together, + spirare, breathe. Breathing together. Whispering in a hallway or smoke-filled back room.) But as Scott Alexander points out, all vast conspiracies, right-wing or otherwise, are plagued by the free-rider problem. The Global Elite can’t simply hatch a plot at Davos and expect their members to follow through on it. The benefits to individual actors simply don’t outweigh the costs.

Luckily(?), a Prestige Economy can function even in a PR environment that prevents people from explicitly acknowledging their intentions. Remember that a Prestige Economy works whenever individuals celebrate (and attempt to curry favor with) other individuals whose efforts advance the superorganism’s goals. Now suppose you’re a member of the Global Elite — the CEO of a major bank, say. Next year, at the World Economic Forum, you run into Hillary Clinton, who has since been elected President and helped pass some bank-friendly legislation. Of course she didn’t explicitly say, “I’m doing this for the Global Elite” — but you nevertheless recognize her actions as helpful to you and your tribe. Your heart danced a little jig when you read about her new legislation in the paper. And now that you’ve run into her, you have those warm fuzzy feelings that tell you, “This person would make a good ally.” So you try a little harder to curry favor than you would have otherwise.

Clinton understands this, which is why she feels good about passing bank-friendly legislation in the first place. She knows that if she does things that help the Global Elite, she’ll get a warm reception among them. Conversely, if she started passing strict bank regulations, she can reasonably expect to get the cold shoulder, or at least a lukewarm reception.

Now, does this give us license to indulge in “conspiracy” theories? Well, it depends, first of all, on the kind of agency we’re attributing to these faceless superorganisms. Could the Deep State fake a moon landing? Please. That kind of sharp, focused, project-based agency is reserved for actual organizations. Instead, the kind of agency the Deep State is capable of, if any, is broad and diffuse. Nothing like a blitzkrieg — just gradual, steady encroachment.

Whether we should indulge a conspiracy theory also depends on the social geometry that would be required for the purported conspiracy to function. If it requires the collaboration of people who have no social contact with one another, and who therefore can’t meaningfully grant status to each other, then the conspiracy is a non-starter, even if all the individuals might somehow benefit from it overall.

But many of these conspiracies do have the necessary social geometry to permit a (weak) Prestige Economy to develop. Take, for example, the various “Big” industries: Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Tobacco. Maybe throw in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the Mainstream Media for good measure. Now these industries aren’t entirely faceless. Some are more embraced by the public, and therefore don’t have to live in the shadows. Some have formal trade associations advocating on their behalf. But they still make a good case study because they share an important feature in common: executives within each industry spend a lot of time socializing with each other. They see each other at country clubs, cocktail parties, conferences, and industry events. And crucially, every interaction holds the promise of future collaboration, whether it comes in the form of a new startup, cross-hiring between firms, or just one-on-one friendship outside the office. Thus executives are incentivized to seek status and curry favor with one another. And one of the ways they demonstrate value is by advancing the interests of their tribe.

When Mark Zuckerberg launches a campaign to allow more skilled immigrants into the US, it stands to benefit Silicon Valley as a whole and, to some extent, Facebook in particular. But he’s not doing it out of cold, calculated, capitalist self-interest, but rather out of soft, social, status-based self-interest. The campaign makes Zuckerberg look good, gives him a better reputation around town. His peers will celebrate him for it. Like the mouse who bells the cat, he’s doing it for the glory.



[1] banding together to resist tyranny. According to Christopher Boehm, this is the quintessential collective action problem for our species. It’s the one that our ancestors managed to solve, the one that set us down the path to becoming what we think of as human. See Hierarchy in the Forest.

[2] only one architecture. For a discussion of other architectures, see Martin Nowak’s SuperCooperators. He discusses the Prestige Economy (as “reputation” and “indirect reciprocity”) along with other cooperation-inducing mechanisms like kin selection, group selection, and spatial structures. Of these, only indirect reciprocity works as a generic, scalable architecture for cooperation among self-interested individuals.

[3] Prestige Economy. I wonder if it’s better to call it a “Status Economy.” At issue is whether it’s possible to transact dominance (the other form of status besides prestige). I suspect that it is possible to transact dominance, but also that it’s much harder. Dominance is the less liquid asset. Prestige works better as currency.

[4] talking mice. If Jean-Louis Dessalles is to be believed, prestige was a prereq for the evolution of language, at least in our species. His book on the subject, Why We Talk, is one of the best I’ve read in the last five years. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially Part 3.

[5] self-interest for male feminists. It should be noted that there are also selfish reasons a man might want feminism to succeed, e.g., to the extent that it would help his daughter or wife earn more money.

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About Kevin Simler

Kevin Simler is a writer and technologist. You can follow him on Twitter or over at his home blog, Melting Asphalt.


  1. John Michael Thomas says

    Definitely a thought-provoking theory. And I think for the most part I agree.

    The one thing that seems incomplete is that this seems to assume that every selfish individual is making rational decisions about their actions (the same problem that most economic theories rely on), when in reality the vast majority of selfish individuals make decisions emotionally, and only rationalize the decisions later.

    So the question is not what physical benefits each selfish individual receives, but what emotional benefits they receive (since these are what drive most action). Certainly the expectation of a physical reward (or censure) can generate emotions that drive action that aligns with what we’d consider rational actions. And the Reputation Economy can be at least partially explained by recognizing that as humans we are emotionally wired to receive benefit (pleasure) from the status or positive reputation conferred on us by others. But those aren’t the only generators of emotions strong enough to motivate action which would otherwise be considered too costly.

    For example, altruism is not a completely abstract concept – it is a very real, very emotionally-driven approach which in some people is completely separate from the concept of status. There are, for example, many people who toil away behind the scenes anonymously toward various “noble” causes without ever receiving recognition or reward (I’ve known many). However I would expect that this doesn’t describe the majority of participants (I’ve known many more who were more interested in seeking status), and therefore can’t be relied upon to form and maintain a superorganism. But I do think that it needs to be taken into account, since emotions drive both the invisible altruist and the status-seeker, even though the emotions are driven by different things.

    There is an old saying that there is no limit to what someone can do if they don’t care who gets the credit. And maybe this points the way toward explaining the invisible altruist. Because some actions we take provide a benefit (emotional reward) completely independent of external recognition or status.

    The problem, of course, is that status seeking can be considered almost universal, while actions provide this reward vary (greatly) from person to person. However it does at least appear possible that a group of selfish individuals with similar internal values that provide emotional rewards for the same “altruistic” actions could help to form and maintain a superorganism. Then the question becomes whether those shared values are enough to overcome the free rider problem alone; I suspect that in any superorganism that forms based on face-to-face contact it’s not (we’re so hard-wired to seek status that status-seeking will almost always become a bigger driving force), but it *might* be possible in surerorganisms that rely on less personal connections (like online communications).

    In any case, the simple version of all of this is: If we recognize that most people’s decisions are emotionally driven rather than rationally/economically driven, how does that impact the Reputation Economy where not all individuals receive the same emotional rewards from reputation and status?

    It seems likely that we will still end up with free rider problems, though perhaps more granular. In other words, those individuals that gain the most emotional reward from status will seek it and do more work and status, while those who gain less emotional reward will work less and sink to the minimum level of both work and status they’re comfortable with. And those that gain no emotional reward from status (such as psychopaths) will either seek status to achieve more rational/economic benefits, or will fall so far out of the Reputation Economy that they’ll be ejected by the superorganism.

    • You’re right: in this post, I completely ignore altruistic or other “irrational” or purely psychological motives. It’s an analytical bias, and it causes me to miss out on a number of insights.

      That said, I’m skeptical that people spend a lot of time and effort toiling behind the scenes without any regard for credit. In most cases, *someone* sees all the good, hard, selfless work you’ve been putting in — even if it’s just your spouse. Given the right social geometry, when someone does enough of these good, pseudo-anonymous deeds, other people start to get the “whiff” of a trustworthy, virtuous person. Contrast with the scheming sociopath. You can’t always pin him down on specific wrongs, but over time you start to get a sense that he’s cutting corners and screwing people over behind the scenes.

      (This isn’t to say that enlightened self-interest is always the best way to succeed, or that sociopaths never come out on top. I just think that most ecosystems predominantly reward “good” players.)

      • “In most cases, *someone* sees all the good, hard, selfless work you’ve been putting in — even if it’s just your spouse.”

        Which points to the memetic fitness of religion – if there’s an always-watching super entity which will ultimately mete out just rewards, all actions will have reputational cost / reward. So really the trick is just to instantiate the super entity the right way ;) No doubt a sufficiently complex system of rules would do the trick.

  2. Of course it works, from the Catholic Church to ISIS to the banksters, brings us all kind of good…

  3. Great piece! My only “criticism” comes from the bite of envy and frustration of seeing someone else articulate clearly and persuasively some ideas that I’ve been ruminating about for a long time, waiting to write them up.

    The only difference is that my analysis focuses a bit more on a third factor (implicit for you, and following the other two of individualism/self-interest and status/prestige) of tribalism/membership. There has to be some sense of “my kind of people” that you are competing for status among, especially in our very large and very noisy modern world with all its competing status hierarchies.

    • “the bite of envy and frustration” — haha, yeah, I’m all too familiar with that feeling. Sorry to have “scooped” you on this one :P

      “tribalism/membership” — Yeah, this is a huge factor. Superorganisms that cultivate a sense that “this is our tribe” are typically always stronger than ones that don’t. The main reason I didn’t focus on that factor is that I was trying to see if it’s possible to do without it. (*Minimum* viable superorganism.) But it’s possible that a sense of tribalism *is* actually necessary for group-level agency, even if it’s only implicit.

  4. “U.S. military, the most powerful superorganism ever to arise on our humble planet”

    “Or the Catholic Church, a superorganism that’s managed to survive, with awe-inspiring continuity, for nearly two millennia.”

    Propaganda aimed at herds of mindless drones, and violent slaughter of rivals are the hallmarks of a successful human superorganism.

  5. orthonormal says

    This model also implies a weak guess about why some movements seem to have a predictable advantage over others (e.g. the “expanding circle of altruism”), without giving too much credence to individual humans’ preference for good arguments.

    If you can get prestige both for helping with a shared goal and for demonstrating generally useful abilities like intelligence, then there’s an interesting dynamic when you compare two movements, one based around simpler and more coherent ideas, and the other based around murkier and more compartmentalized ideas. It takes a moderate amount of intelligence to point out contradictions in the second movement, and a greater amount to route around those contradictions or find some in the first movement.

    So the first movement has the advantage of allowing people to gain prestige by signaling their above-average intelligence via defending its ideas, where the second movement only has the advantage of allowing the very elite to gain prestige by presenting deep contrarian cases in favor of its ideas. It looks like the first movement generally wins throughout history, but the second produces some magnificent cultural debris on its way out.

    • All of this sounds correct to me. And I think you’re right to identify intelligence-signaling as the weaker force here.

      Re the expanding circle: I wonder how important empathy-signaling is to these movements. A person with high empathy will spontaneously (and almost involuntarily) help others. That’s a pretty attractive trait to have in one’s friends and teammates.

  6. I am reminded of the concept of Whuffie and the reputation economy from Cory Doctorow’s work “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”

  7. What if how you treated your fellow man – your friends, neighbors and even strangers – counted for more than money, more than the car in the garage and more than the house on the hill. What if having a reputation for benevolence and trust mattered most. What if your contribution to the ‘spontaneous order’ of your community was the mark that was revered to the highest societal degree. And what if taking a step back and learning from the societies of the past was really a step to a new level of wellbeing … one further up the evolutionary ladder:

    “What if Reputation Ruled the World”

    • “What if your contribution to the ‘spontaneous order’ of your community was the mark that was revered to the highest societal degree.” What if we were ants?

  8. Reminds of this Adam Smith quote: “The great secret of education is to directy vanity to proper objects.”

  9. Interesting post :)

    I wonder how the world would look if the status/prestige market were to be decoupled from the financial/monetary market.

    Personally, I try to avoid doing things based on status rewards, and I tend to resent being placed in other’s status hierarchies.

    I have no clue how or if this decoupling could happen, but if it did, it might make me reconsider my attitude towards participating in status markets.

    • It is the normal state of affairs that status/prestige hierarchies ARE decoupled from straight-forward financial status.

      Moreover, most people deny being part of them: keeping up with the Joneses is always something OTHER people do.

      Crassly and overtly pursuing status usually COSTS status points.

      • I would disagree.

        I am talking about conspicuous consumption, i.e. trading money, fairly efficiently, for social status, or vice versa.

        The decoupling I’m imagining would make it at least not worthwhile to trade between the two.

        Maybe it is the term decouple that is at issue, I guess that a better term may be isolate.

        At least where I am, it is very normal to “buy” status, and you would have to be *very* strident to raise an eyebrow.

        • I would suggest looking a little closer.

          There are some environments (usually ones where most people manifestly DON’T have money) where merely having money is sufficient to have status.

          But ask yourself this: would these people you think have bought their status still have it if they just blew their money indiscriminately? Or does HOW they spend it matter?

          Also, try this: go up to one of them and casually mention that it’s great how they’ve bought status. Observe how quickly they disavow this and become indignant.

  10. I’m having a bit of trouble understanding your points, I think there may be some impedance mismatch, I’ll try to respond to each.

    I’m assuming by your first point, that you are saying, that there may be corner cases where status financial isolation may be difficult.

    I agree, but take a stronger position, I don’t even know how status financial isolation would work at all, I’m just trying to imagine a world that already has status financial isolation and what it would look like.

    Your second point, I don’t see why it matters that someone can waste their money on “lemon” status goods and services, they can just as easily waste their money on “lemon” regular goods and services, or for that matter just burn their money.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand why it matters that one person may get a larger status return on a given financial investment.

    Your final point, again, I don’t see how it is relevant that a given person may not be fully conscious of the transactions they are making.

    It seems that some people, when confronted with an economic model of their behavior, like to reply, “I don’t like to think of things that way”.

    I’m not saying that this way of modeling their behavior is the only way, or even the most useful way, but it does seem somewhat useful.

    I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings I may have.

    • I think the source of misunderstanding is that you are making the assumption that a status hierarchy has a nice, smooth, linear, universal and objective scale, the way an economist (mistakenly) analyzes the human economy as if dollar values are all that matter.

      Let’s say that you are claiming that someone is “buying status” through the clothing they wear, or the car they drive. A Hummer and a Tesla might cost the same amount, but will net you different status in different groups (might COST you in some). Dressing like the hot new hip hop artist and wearing a fur coat might cost the same, but again, will have different status effects.

      In fact, in some circles, choosing to not own a car, or deliberately dressing in Walmart clothes, might give you a status boost.

      “I don’t like to think of things that way” is an inherent part of the status system, not just a bug in people’s rationality.

      The classic rationalist mistake is to assume that a rational analysis of an irrational system is superior to an analysis that accepts irrationality as a primitive.

      • Ok, so I think the problem is that I didn’t specify that financial-status transfers are only effective within “in groups”, and may not be transferable to a different “in group”. I would say that most people tend to stay within their “in group” so that this is relatively unimportant. But yes, there is an important difference in fungibility of financial vs. status systems.

        I don’t think the classic game theoretic model of a human, (i.e. perfectly rational, perfectly self interested), is accurate for the vast majority of humans, but I don’t think that this model is necessary in this case. I think, that all that is needed is to assume that people generally respond to incentives. So if someone sees someone else in their in-group rewarded for spending money in some way, they might be incentivized to behave the same way, irrelevant of whether they think of their behavior rationally or not. I guess some degree of self interest is required, but I think it is safe to assume that generally, humans are at least somewhat self interested.

        As for gaining status through deprivation, there seems to still be a cost associated with that deprivation, it just may not be financial. In the case of no car the cost would be one of somewhat limited mobility, and with cheap clothes, the cost may be less effective clothes.

        I don’t think you’re saying that in addition to the model accounting for irrational people, that the process of creating the model itself must be done irrationally, I can not see how that would produce anything but nonsense.

        I don’t think we actually disagree very much. Sorry for the long reply.

  11. I like this idea, though I do think it is missing something, much like any model that focuses only in rewards extrinsic to activity. So, when you brought up the “building a fence” example, I kept thinking, “Hey, I might actually really want to help build that fence, just because I find it an enjoyable activity.” In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that it’s something I would do in a total social vacuum, or regardless of what anyone happened to think of me for doing it, but I do mean to say that in some social contexts, it would not occur to me to have a “Why should I do all this work?” type attitude, because I’d like doing it.

    I suppose part of what I’m getting at is that I find it strange that you would factor in the idea of intrinsic reward when looking at the notion of celebrating a hero/prestigious person, but not when looking at the work for which a person might be celebrated.

    I also want to point out that recognition may not be the only important social factor in selfish motivation to group work. So, for example, I remember going to an ashram for a time and being put on a working detail that did things like pulling weeds, digging irrigation ditches, and also breaking large obstructive rocks on one occasion. Now, these are all activities which I would ordinarily have thought of as incredibly tedious and uncomfortable things to do, but the culture of the ashram and the encouraged attitudes for people working there made me really happy to do almost any kind of work with people. Social recognition factored in, but it would have factored in in a more authoritarian context or an extrinsic-reward-of-money context also. Yet I don’t think I would have actually enjoyed the activity itself in those contexts. Something was different there, both culturally and internally, and that combination of factors made the work itself enjoyable for me. I want to also point out that many other people in my same working group did not feel the same way, and found it exhausting. I was not in good physical shape, yet I did not get exhausted — and again, I think that this was a result of how the whole lifestyle and context impacted me personally. While some kind of recognition may have been a portion of the enjoyment I derived from the experience, I would not say that it was 50% or greater. Simply one factor among many.

    So, I honestly think that the intersection of cultural context + specific social context + systems context + personal affinities (perhaps among other contextual factors) will radically affect the selfish perception of how much a person wants to do something for its own sake, regardless of whether that thing is celebrating a hero or building a fence.

    • You’re right — it was a bit weird to mention the intrinsic feelings for only one of the two relevant activities. And you’re also right that people, in some contexts, internalize the joy of doing (recognized) hard work, just as most people have internalized the joy of celebrating a hero.

      If there’s any difference between the two activities, I’d say it’s the fact that it’s easier to cheat at putting in the work. There are some contexts where you can slack off and still get paid. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to abstain from celebrating a hero and yet still get credit for it. The only credit comes from the hero himself, who has to see you there at his celebratory feast (or whatever).

      Anyway, thanks for helping smooth out the discrepancy in my mind.

  12. This is great stuff, and I think helpful in illuminating some of the basic mechanisms behind organizations through its parsimony.

    An interesting empirical question is whether a particular minimum viable superorganism is fit from an evolutionary perspective — i.e., does it improve the fitness of its members? Within your rubric, the cost-benefit reduces to balancing the cost of status seeking and celebration vs. the advantages of divisions of labor, &c. that result from the conspiracy.

    …which is where this connects up with some existing literature. Robert Frank has written about the economics of “positional goods,” and especially their negative externalities. In your terms, we might say that a potentially good use of redistributional policy would be to tamp down on the status-seeking/celebratory tendencies when they threaten to overwhelm the benefits of cooperation in the first instance.

    • Totally. Getting the right externalities out of status-seeking is one of the ripest areas for social engineering, IMO. It’s a good idea to tax the “bad” status-seeking activities (those with negative externalities), in the hopes that people will migrate to “good” ones with positive externalities.

  13. All living things evolve. For most species, this evolution is evident in easily observable physical traits, but some heritable traits are behavioral. And all traits exist because they “work” in the sense that they contribute to a species’ ability to survive and thrive.

    Homo sapiens are unique in that we developed complex language about 200,000 years ago and thereby acquired the ability to communicate in sophisticated ways. This provided a means of passing wisdom to each succeeding generation via the transmissions of ideas (wetware reprogramming), and spawned a new type of evolutionary mechanism which is centered around heritable behaviors.

    The proclivity to form what you call superorganisms is a behavior encoded in our genes, and exists because it has “worked” over many thousands of generations.