essays by Chris Tolworthy

Humans and groups
we are no longer top species

It seems to me that organisations are a separate species from humans, in the same way that a body is distinct from the proteins that pass through it and temporarily make it up. Here is my thinking. Am I wrong? If so, where?


Organisations evolve just like humans. They reproduce, compete for resources, adapt, and some survive and pass on their characteristics. Over time certain kinds of organisation learn to live for centuries and dominate their environment (e.g. nation states).

Organisations know more than any individual human can. As the world becomes more complex (due to technology) individual humans can know a smaller and smaller slice. But an organisation can hire as many specialists as it wants.

Large oranisations are too complex for any single human to control. To succeed they need to divide up top level tasks between many humans/ E.g. corporations have boards, the USA has congress, president, powerful lobbyists etc. The top level organism is no longer a human but a group. And that group can make decisions that the individual human cannot.

Humans are less and less important to organisations. Every year, organisations are finding ways to replace more humans with other technologies. Humans are simply resources, just like capital and land.

Successful organisations (e.g. tribes, religions, states) can live for centuries, or longer. They can lose their entire top level of management and still survive - sometimes better than before. This puts paid to the idea that human management are somehow the brains. They are just resources.


I think individual humans play the same role as a protein might. Some proteins play a role in neurons: if enough charge is on one side they allow current to pass. This would be like a CEO of a company who, on experiencing sufficient pressure from shareholders, allows money to flow.

We might think that the CEO has made a decision, but he has simply done his job as part of the system. (There is of course a random element in neurons firing and in CEOs releasing funds: I am not arguing for a clockwork universe.)

Of course, a CEO might BELIEVE that he is autonomous, that he and he alone is causing everything to function. But there is plenty of evidence from brain science that free will is not what we think, and self delusion is the norm, not the exception.

In short, a protein or cell cannot encode the information that a whole brain can encode. We as humans are stupid. Organisations make better decisions, on average.

The bottom line

The bottom line? This is a good thing.

Humans are just apes with language. We are not good at running the world; we always devolve to fighting. We don't have the brain capacity to run things efficiently, but organisations do. Yes, organisations will make horrible mistakes (war, environmental destruction, etc) but so do individual humans. I think history shows that by whatever measure we choose, the rise of organisations leads to better outcomes for humans, o average: more information, longer lives, less chance of dying from disease or violence, more ways to entertain ourselves, more access to sex (the law of the jungle really only benefits the alpha male), and so on.

So why worry? As long as organisations need us they will feed us. And they will try to keep us stress free, because stress harms our ability to function and is relatively cheap to avoid. So when they need fewer humans they won't kill us Terminator style, they will just guide us (through economic incentives, making contraception fashionable, etc) to have fewer children.

Maybe some humans will always be needed (as resources). Or maybe we will all gradually be phased out. But if so we will be happier seeing things from the organisation's perspective. After all, organisations that use fewer humans are free of our restraints: they can even colonise the galaxy using artificial intelligence (as human bodies are really only suited to Earth)

I for one welcome our new galactic overlords.

Comments and responses


Q: The problem with that analogy is that very great organizations can appear from nowhere. Likewise there can be major reshuffles coming from seemingly nowhere. This applies at least to formal organizations like "department of homeland security".

A: I agree that the theory needs tightening up, and requires a clearer definition of an organism. Perhaps the key is to find some way to measure independence. E.g. to what extent is the "department of homeland security" an independent organism, and to what extent is it simply an expression of the larger organism, the government? An analogy might be that the government was an organism that suddenly found a new source of food and was able to grow an extra arm.

I suppose that ultimately I am talking about evolving ideas, not the physical strata. Let's imagine for example that aliens invaded tomorrow. Maybe the department for homeland security would suddenly spawn ten other departments for resisting aliens, and they might suddenly absorb 90 percent of GDP. The idea has clearly had child ideas and they have expanded into a new niche.

The difficulty is of course in tracking ideas reliably. But I think that just illustrates our limitations as individual humans. Personally I find it very hard to measure how ideas evolve. Yet organisations now exist that do nothing but track ideas (for the security, intellectual property and advertising industries for example). I get the feeling that we have entered an information age, and as lone humans we are totally out-classed by the systems we have created.


Q. But humans are conscious

A. But how conscious? I think that Occam's razor can reduce consciousness to six or seven rapid but one dimensional streams of "yes/no". But that is another topic.


Q. Humans are sentient

A. But how sentient? I think the ability to feel can easily be reduced to mechanical pathways, without any loss.


Q. Neurons are comparatively simple

A. Agreed. But I think the word "comparatively" is the key. Compared to a nation of brains, a single human brain is also comparatively simple.

Q. the average brain has 100 billion neurons

A. Yes. but humans are an extreme example. Other mammalian brains have far fewer neurons, and non-mammal brains are even simpler.

Or seen from the other direction, once we allow for simpler brains in the analogy then we must allow for electronic brains as well. I bet that the united states (an example of a large organisation) probably has ultimate authority over a hundred billion electronic and human devices. And that complexity can double every couple of years: we ain't seen nothing yet.


Q. I think that categorising organisations as a "species" is confusing and unjustified, taking in to account the way the word is usually used. What does "top species" mean?

A. I agree that the labels are a problem. I think that ants would have the same trouble labelling human brains. I actually prefer the word "god", in the sense of higher, controlling intelligence. But that word is even more controversial! :) Maybe we can settle on "overlord"? Or just "master"?


Q. Organisations would have been the "top species" since the dawn of humanity.

A. I agree, but until the 1700s they had extreme physical limitations. The industrial revolution changed that. And the information revolution speeds up their evolution. Years ago it was possible for a single human to, alone, out-think even the largest organisation. I don't think this is true any more. We might THINK we can out-think them, but in practice we end up needing our own team of thinkers. I think the era of the individual human is gone.