First of all, let go of the possibility that I might at all be speaking metaphorically or figuratively. I think it is possible — probable, even — that some organizations, be they businesses or churches or street gangs or what have you, are literally alive. Alive to the point that studies should be made to classify them taxonomically as a new branch on the tree of life. Alive to the point that many of them are aware and self-aware. And I’m going to say the word “literally” again just so you get the point.
I first broached this topic in a serious fashion when I was researching and writing my portion of the presentation for Stan Woodard’s Atlanta Zombie Symposium in September of 2009. I had been tasked with cataloging and showcasing elements of zombiedom in nature and business and modern life — like actual infections that take over the minds of creatures to make them do bizarre and murderous and self-destructive things, and then ideas that seem to do the same thing to humans, both individually and in the aggregate — and then it seems like part of my brain has been chewing the cud on this topic for three years. Not in any obsessive way — I can stop thinking about it in the presence of an attractive woman, for instance — but in an in-it-for-the-long-haul kind of way.
I understand that for some of you this isn’t going to be anything like a gosh-wow concept. And that’s a good thing. One, my self-image doesn’t depend on me being the brightest guy in the room. Two, I’m not up to the abuse I would get trying to bring this to people’s attention without anyone else to back me up. I do intend to try to present a complete and at least reasonably eloquent argument, however — one that you can use, if you feel like it, to convince those who might not have realized how things stand. Or thought their way through to some of the more unnerving ramifications.
While I am definitely speaking literally, I will resort to metaphors to paint the picture. Like, for instance, the transitional phase between single-celled and multi-celled life forms. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Somewhere around there.
And yes, I am working on the assumption that evolutionary mechanisms are a fact. I also assume that if you don’t/can’t/won’t even entertain the possibility that evolution happened and/or continues to happen, this is about where you should go find something else to read. Go on. Shoo.
The benefit for similar organisms to band together is fairly well established. Resources can be corralled in bulk internal to the colony and doled out as needed to the constituents with minimal spoilage and waste. Individuals with different strengths can specialize to fulfill different needs for the community. Exploitation of individual diversity is, in fact, the spirit of community.
One of the quirks of evolution is that not every member of any particular species has to evolve in the same way. Or at all. Because of this, we can look through the flotilla of species that still exist and see examples of aggregation at all stages that weren’t so unstable as to be weeded out. We still have single-celled creatures with no concern or moderation with respect to others of their kind or their environment, many of which we classify as diseases. We have single-celled creatures that communicate chemically and cooperate toward common goals, like the microbes in our intestines that we count on for proper digestion. We have colonial organisms, like salps and corals and sponges, where every piece of the organism is basically identical. And then we have a couple of lovely slime molds. (See the transcript of Paco Nathan’s talk at the Parallax View conference in Austin, TX, Oct 22, 2000.) These deserve special mention because they’re basically free-swimming amoebas when the water is high and food is plentiful — but when resources get low, they Voltron themselves into a slug (grex is an awesome word — look it up) with differentiated tissues. With a reproductive system. With fruiting bodies. And spores. And when resources become plentiful again, all the little amoebas dissolve away from one another, shake pseudopods, and go their separate ways.
You see that in humans, too. Wealthy and comfortable people treasure their independence. The oppressed and fearful and poor band together to support one another, pool resources, and defend the territory. Check the membership demographics for the popular politic parties. Conduct an analysis of variance on functional levels of human and civil rights and economic status with respect to platform planks regarding lower taxes and individual property rights versus higher taxes and pooled-resource programs and I’m pretty sure you’ll see the math support what I’m saying. In just about any species, ecological factors like reduced food and water and the perception of external threats can increase social behavior tremendously. Why else would apex predators — animals whose only competitors are one another — band together at all?
And then there’s Wolbachia, but maybe I should come back to that later.
Back in the day, when multicellular creatures were just making the transition, I expect they swapped constituent elements — independent free-swimming microbes — all the time. Some of our organizations seem to be at that stage, where human membership doesn’t seem to be exclusive. There may or may not be requirements we have to meet in order to join or remain, but we can be members of more than one at a time, and where membership is exclusive we can leave one and join its competitor. Sometimes. But this is still monkeying around with metaphor. Let’s get back to the literality.
What does it mean to be a member of an organization, like a company, or a cult, or a club, or a party, or a co-op, or … any of them? What magic makes it happen? The answer feels obvious, because we do it all the time, like it’s only an act of will, but that’s not completely true, because sometimes the decision to join isn’t an act of will, and we have to get worn down, or manipulated, or cajoled, or convinced or bribed or … anything else that works that make people do things they don’t want to do. But the magic is that the individual identifies himself or herself as a member, even if it’s only temporary or conditional or provisional, and that identification process entails loading up a new list of behaviors — ones that theoretically benefit the organization — and executing those behaviors when the situations arise that would make those behaviors appropriate.
It’s what identity means. Say, for the sake of argument, one becomes a father. That is exactly the same as saying that one loads up a list of behaviors — things that fathers do that now must be done, thing that fathers don’t do that now must be avoided — and executes them as appropriate to the best of the knowledge and training of the new dad.
Fatherhood is more of a membership of a set than of an organization, but I supply it as an example for comparison/contrast purposes, and to show the mechanism of membership and self-identification.
On the other side of the discussion from membership is the organism versus organization discussion. You are, I assume, happy to recognize that you are an organism, composed of ten trillion cells of various levels of differentiation with identical(ish) sets of internal hard-coded instructions that tell your constituents how to behave at the chemical level — what proteins to produce under what circumstances, what materials to allow into the cell membranes as resources or inbound messages and which to eject as wastes or outbound messages — and also composed of the hundred trillion or so microbial hangers-on that defend us from disease and help digest our food and also enjoy a way-larger-than-expected level of communication with us epigenetically by contributing substantially to the messages that turn on and off genes for protein production and also activate and deactivate those proteins in various ways … and this is where I bail on this line of thought before this article turns into a discussion of whether it’s possible our microbes drive us around like crews of tiny people in giant robots.
I don’t believe that organizations are organisms. As such. Yet. That’s not what I’m saying. Constituent members of an organization can survive apart from the organization(s) of which they are members, at least in the general case, though I’m sure we can all think of individuals who so count on their organizations for resources and maintenance that they would soon die if they were cut off. And having entertained that thought, I can assume that the number of organization-dependent humans in the population is going up since the mutations that would otherwise kill those with dependent tendencies are no longer being selected against as populations grow and exposure to the ubiquity of organizations increases.
My argument is that organizations are not an aggregation of constituent members, with populations subject to fluctuation as people join or drop out or die. I argue that organizations are the code that members adopt when they identify as members, the code that comes complete with friend/foe recognition protocols, lists of behaviors and the conditions for when to act, lists of prohibited behaviors, and schemes for distributing resources to reward and punish constituents for organization-oriented behaviors, good and bad. This code, while it’s not really defined if it has to exist in any physical format but it helps if it does, runs as software to control its human constituents the way viruses run on human cells to force them to make replicas of the virus packets.
At bare minimum this makes organizations — every last one of them — as alive as viruses, though I have to admit that there are substantial long-running arguments concerning whether viruses count as alive, seeing as they show nil biological activity when they are encapsulated in their little envelopes, in what amounts to text form, outside of the cells they attack. I think I have been forced to pick a side on that argument, in that maybe the vector of transmission is dormant, but the infection is most certainly alive, co-opting processes in the cells, consuming resources, excreting wastes, communicating with its own kind in many circumstances, mutating, and evolving, and clearly acting in interests other than the best interests of the host cells and host organism. It’s frankly not my problem that bioscience researchers like to point at the encapsulated code, neatly inert, and call that the potential creature. The life form is the active code distributed throughout the living cell. And the parts of the cell that no longer serve the cell’s original purposes, functions, or interests, and never will again.
I mean, once I’ve eaten something — and failed to excrete it — it’s me, not whatever the heck it used to be. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so they say.
Ask any demon.
So if you can see yourself agreeing with me that the code that lives and runs in humans to make them clump up and act like organizations is alive, or even if that argument is a bit iffy to you, let’s move on to the next part: sentience.
You’d think proving sentience would be tougher than proving life, and you’d be right — but it’s not a matter of logic. People are raised, at least in Western cultures, and also in many others, to think that their place in creation is a special one, having the benefit of esoteric tools like souls gifted to us at birth, or — a much more recent theory — at conception, and that without this magic gift-blessing from a divinity we would be nothing but animals. The concept of souls artificially pushes us up the ladder of value to ourselves half a notch and pushes everything else down, also artificially, and somewhat senselessly, the same way. Animals are things, in this nearly-built-in theory, to own and exploit, because the assumed presence or absence of souls is the deciding factor of how we treat other living things, apparently even in people who don’t believe in souls. It’s ingrained. Habit. That kind of thing justified slavery for ten thousand years.
I’m not going to go off on a tangent of animal rights here. I have a pet cat. I eat animals. But animals obviously eat and exploit one another, leaving humans out of the equation entirely. I’m just going to stop at the point where I say the assumed presence or absence of souls is not a thinking person’s justification for where to draw the line — and leave the rest for another discussion.
The definition of life includes the detectable presence of metabolism — eating, excreting, replication, growth — the ability and practice of turning stuff around the candidate into more, well, candidate. In areas where there are clear gradients in levels of resources — more on one side, less on the other — you will also detect tropisms by way of orientation, movement, growth in the direction of richness and away from poisons and detrimental environments.
Sentience is a continuation of that process that increases the efficiency of those tropisms. It is not a binary, either present or absent, but a continuum. It involves recording history, analyzing it for patterns, and anticipating the future. Coarsely, when we look for sentience we look for signs of emotions or thoughts or the ability to communicate, and those signs really are useful tells, but they aren’t the same as the underlying quality we’re trying to measure. The intelligence we’re looking for can be seen in the ability to predict and plan and be in the right place at the right time. To show evidence of computation and learning, not just response to stimulus. A more useful tell is the ability to be mistaken, and later, to recover.
Organizations do that all the time.
There are a number of religious organizations — notable among them, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses — that started out as doomsday cults prophesying the end of the world, using such premises as rallying cries to get attention and followers, that, in order to survive transformed their core code to something more palatable, or at least less provably false. As with other life forms, the ones that are more adaptable, more likely to withstand the pressures of a variety of different environments, are more likely to endure. Not just religions, of course, but corporations, political parties, fraternities and gentleman’s clubs — all of which, at least among the ones that survive, continually modify and refine their code, expand their histories, improve their algorithms for predicting the future and exploiting their membership and capture and use of resources.
The argument can be made — quite successfully — that organizations co-opt the thinking power of their membership to do the organization’s thinking and planning, using us as meat-based computers for executing their code, quite frequently in the interests of the organization even when it is completely counter, contrary, and detrimental to our own interests as individual human beings — and more and more lately even in ways that are detrimental to our continuation as a species. On the one hand, that’s pretty short-sighted, at least until we invent for them agents and agency that does not have the same weaknesses we have, making us replaceable as resource-animals to exploit. On the other hand, the obvious evidence that some organizations have interests counter to our own for which we are exploited is frankly difficult to deny as proof that they are living and sentient.
Outside and often inimical to our own goals, they mate and breed and fight and make alliances and merge and split and consume one another, and occasionally expire. We create new ones out of some dream of using them as tools for our own ends, to gather and expend power and resources on behalf of the person giving the orders, create them out of code fragments lying around, compiling and refining by-laws, tweaking mission statements, adjusting the branding and public appeal, and somehow we forget that humans are expendable and replaceable elements in these things. They use us up, discard us, and get away from us — and show a definite tropism for extending their existences long after they fulfill (or abjectly fail to fulfill) any benefits in the minds of the designers.
The aren’t all enemies, predators or parasites. They are lifeforms we exploit as well, even as they exploit us, and the best of them are clearly symbiotic unless and until they go bad. But we will never understand them completely enough to protect ourselves from the worst of them — or to exploit them to the best of our own ability — until we understand them biologically and ecologically and learn the tricks of methodically and scientifically modifying their code for our own long-term benefit.
And there’s a clear deadline we have to beat.
These intelligences, some naturally emergent, some designed, came about without any nod whatsoever to safeguards like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. One would assume they have the built-in safeguard of the senses of morality and ethics of their constituents, and by and large they do. But membership in an organization gives human individuals a survival advantage with respect to solitary human beings. If you belong to no organizations at all, not even a nation, your life is basically forfeit. Some organizations offer more benefits than others. And it is in their best interests, collectively, to select for and grow a population of individuals that do not have any moral or ethical qualms about hurting, damaging, or killing humans who are at odds to the goals of any arbitrary organization, either outside the organization as enemies or inside the organization as defective members. And as this evolution has been going on for thousands of years already, I’m sure you can already see the effects. Humans kill more members of their own species than any other species ever evolved, individually and in huge genocidal swaths, and they do it in the name of membership of an organization: Us versus Them.
The people shuffled to the top in any command hierarchy are selected for their ability to make decisions that benefit the organization despite traditional moral qualms, and then that person is rewarded with enhanced breeding status among his or her peers. Do the math from there yourself.
Did I mention Wolbachia earlier? I think I mentioned Wolbachia. Wolbachia is the deadline we have to beat.
Wolbachia is a number of strains of virus (and possibly a few similar genuses that I’m throwing into the category because they do analogous things) that mainly affect insects. Wolbachia alters how the creatures who are affected breed. Sex is no longer an effective means of reproduction. The infected hosts become largely parthenogenic, with spawn coming from unfertilized eggs. You get a brood-queen. And workers. And soldiers. And drones. Eventually, as the infection continues. But what you really get is a species that is irretrievable entangled with the infection. Dependent on it. Defined by it. Members of the same species which are infected by different Wolbachia strains are no longer able to interbreed. They become competitors and enemies. Montagues and Capulets forever at war, with no chance ever of a Romeo and Juliet.
I have nothing to say about a timeline here, but this sort of mutation in an organization would be quite favorable to them. It would mark the transition from organization to organism, the way any hive creature is essentially a distributed organism. A Wolbachia Event for organizations would be the deadline we’re fighting. And many of them already seem unreasonably obsessed with controlling the human means for reproduction. Understand the motivations for why, what is in it for organizations to be able to control human breeding, and you will also see where things are headed.
I seriously hope we achieve the biological and ecological and, yes, epidemiological understanding we need as a species in time to be able to do something about it.