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What Would You Give Up For World Peace?

By Adam Frank on Friday September 4th, 2015

The Problem with Being a Species of Individual Organisms

With conflicts on multiple continents it’s hard to look at the ways we humans are horrible to each other and not ask: What the hell is wrong with us?

How can we inflict so much suffering on each other, always with the assertion that — on some level — it is necessary and, even, just? Is there something utterly flawed in the nature of our consciousness that repeatedly triggers such destruction?

Facing such questions, the astrobiologist in me wonders if there might be alternative modes of consciousness that would allow us to escape this fate. Looking forward, could we create something different? We could, but the cure comes with its own cost.

It’s called a hive mind.

Taken from studies of social insects, the basic idea of a hive mind is simple. The ants in an ant colony can be seen not as individual organisms but as “cells” in what scientists like E.O. Wilson call a superorganism. And these superorganisms are, in their way, consciousness.

They respond.

They react.

The behavior of an individual ant embodies more than just its own responses to the environment. It also reveals the collective response of the colony to the environment they inhabit. This distributed “thinking” is expressed in chemical signaling between individuals, rather than through the electrical impulses connecting the various elements of an individual brain. This is a hive mind.

There are lots of examples of superorganisms in nature: honeybees, wasps, termites. Are we in the mess we’ve created because we don’t have a hive mind? Are the horrors we inflict so easily on each other a symptom of our individual selves being trapped in the dark rooms of our heads, with no direct access to the experiences of others? Might having even a small share of the collective consciousness of a hive mind be better for humanity as a whole?

Betrayal by Mario Sanches Nevado
Detail of Betrayal by Mario Sanches Nevado

Imagining intelligent hive-mind species has long been a staple of science fiction. How such a self-aware hive mind is portrayed, however, depends on the intent of the author.

In Ender’s Game, for example, Earth fights a vicious war against the Formics, an insect hive-mind species. Only at the end of the war does Ender Wiggin learn that the Formics attacked us by mistake. Their error came precisely because they (or, better yet, it) didn’t recognize humans as sentient creatures because we don’t have a shared consciousness — a situation the Formics see as horrible in its loneliness. In the end, the Formics are recognized as creatures of high intelligence, sophistication and compassion.

On the other side of the divide there’s the infamous Borg from Star Trek. The Borg travel the galaxy in their immense cube-shaped starships, remorselessly assimilating every species they encounter. In this vision of the hive mind, to be assimilated is seen as a kind of death without release. The Borg’s victims are not just devoured, they are lost to themselves, becoming just more Borg looking for more victims.

Thus we have two poles. On the one hand, to be part of a hive mind might be inclusive and harmonizing. On the other hand, assimilation into the hive mind would be a nightmare, the ultimate eradication of individual will and purpose.

Human chain demonstration
Human chain demonstration

Where is the Human hive-mind?

Evolution did not drive our social formations toward a hive mind. [UPDATE: I originally said mammals as a group did not go down this path. A reader has pointed out that the Damaraland mole rat and the naked mole rats are, in fact, eusocial mammals.] We don’t form colonies and, as E.O. Wilson’s Superorganism co-author Bert Hölldobler sees it, that may have been a mistake:

“In our early past, in our still-biological past, 15,000 years ago we were hunter gatherers. We showed group cohesiveness and discrimination against other groups. It was adaptive. It was quite understandable that we evolved traits of group recognition, and making sure we recognized foreigners. This is my conviction that this is probably the early basis for our unfortunate xenophobic behavior that is still in us. It’s a behavior that is now terribly maladaptive.”

Of course, you might think visions of a human hive mind are nothing more than science fiction or academic gameplay. But that would only be true if it weren’t for the fact that lots of folks are, right now, hard at work developing technologies to create the possibility of a human hive mind (or something like it).

Let’s ignore, for the moment, debates about whether the Internet is leading to the creation of a de facto human hive mind. While there is merit to these arguments, in a true sentient superorganism we might expect a deeper, more visceral connection between individuals. And that is exactly the kind of wiring that is being explored now in research labs around the world.

In 2013 researchers were able to establish an electronic brain-to-brain interface between rats, such that stimulus given one rat drove a response in a linked rat. For some thinkers, this kind of breakthrough represents the first steps toward a Brain-Net. In the future, they tell us, we might all be wirelessly linked to each other. We could “hear” each other’s thoughts and feel each other’s emotions.

While the ultimate feasibility of such a mind-to-mind interface is certainly up for debate, there are, without a doubt, a lot of people trying to make it happen. So here is the question: If it does work and we create a shared cognitive space — a noosphere of collective experience — will we be any better off? Will that form of hive mind help us?

One can imagine that wirelessly walking a mile in another person’s shoes would be enough to give you pause before turning that “other” into an enemy worthy of eradication. Taken on a global scale, perhaps something new might emerge that would be powerful enough to balance the passions of the individual with the best interests of the species.

War Is Over If You Want
World Peace – If You Want It

But what would have to be given up?

For most of us, any retreat from the individual will — the ability to act based on our own judgments and not those of a collective — seems too alien and horrible to consider. One of the greatest fears of those considering the development of something like the Brain-Net is the terrible possibility that someone could use these technologies to do more than simply allow us to share thoughts. If thoughts (and actions) can beinduced through a Brain-Net by outside authorities, then we will be left with the biggest of Big Brother nightmares. As futurist and author Ramez Naam told i09:

” … you can imagine [the Brain-Net] driving a world like that of 1984, where central authorities are the ones in control, and they’re the ones using these direct brain technologies to monitor people, to keep people in line, or even to manipulate people into being who they’re supposed to be. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Would we better off with hive mind? The answer may be just “wait and see.” But I think we could solve our problems with some simpler ideas — empathy, compassion, humility — embodied in old saying that goes something like this:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.

WORDS BY ADAM FRANK
ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON 13.7 COSMOS & CULTURE FOR NPR
FEATURE IMAGE BY LULU2222 ON DEVIANT ART

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Words By Adam Frank

Originally posted on

 

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3 Responses to What Would You Give Up For World Peace?

  1. FREEDOM- THE END OF THE HUMAN CONDITION after reading this book by Jeremy Griffith you’ll have your answes, be prepared to see one’s self for what you are and be prepared to take a new breathe into existence.

  2. ‘Hive mind’ as empathy and compassion — is an illusion.
    Empathy and compassion requires recognition of ‘the other’.

    This subjugation of the individual — the individual is not destroyed by being empathetic and compassionate. The individual continues on, maturer, wiser and more loving and peaceful.

    It is important to note that with bees and other eusocial species — members of other groups of the same species (other hives) are not accepted, anymore than others outside the species (except in rare instances of symbiotic relationships).

    The Formics still see themselves at war with the other. Something not considered ‘sentient’ is still not treated with compassionate understanding. It is something to be destroyed — that is not peace.

    The Hive mind requires hierarchy. Different levels surrounding the ‘one’. With human individuality, you see the shift from hierarchical thinking evolving towards equality. That is, equality of individuals, regardless of the differences. The diversity of the individuals are honored as being ‘equal’.

    The ‘Hive mind’ is mechanical — the individual of that order is static and collective conciousness is based on biological protection of a static state of the species, whereas the human individual, as part of society, is a dynamic and evolving on the level of consciousness. What you think today will change tomorrow.

    Human society is at its healthiest — most peaceful and compassionate when there is balance between the individual and the group. If either the individual or the group dominates, you go away from peace and compassion. It is through the maturation of the individual — compassionate understanding — that peace in society and towards ‘others’ is achieved.

    Mechanical approach of ‘hive mind’ is a hierarchical, external demand that does not allow for real collective consciousness. That is only achieved through awareness of the individual within the group.

    • So then we have come up to a major cross road of our species. I believe we don’t always have to choose one road or the other? We can create out own road! One of collective consciousness as well as individual will! With the understanding of our self we can tap iinto our inner self of our Edd, or our subconscious. This holds keys to our group mentality when we had tribes and villages going on. We can sink back into that and that’s a good start because from there is when we can be compassionate about others then our selves and family. We then take the neccary steps to evoke our mind to understand our world as a whole and our part within it. Individual conscious is beautiful.. But it does not follow the laws of the world around you because you don’t have the capacity to care. We need to open our minds to understand the Tao of life. These people who have sank deep into that understanding are the ones who would sit in the seat of what a “leader” role would be. They have no personal desire, they act as an animal with conscious. They will be the one to serve the people as to help. Not to build an empire. We communicate from our circles and groups we are in to create the HIVE mentality within our social and physical Biomes. And that is the road pecispecicspecicesspecic

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