Minimum Viable Superorganism

Originally published at Ribbonfarm.

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.

Originally published February 11, 2016.