Super-Organic Evolution

Super-Organic Evolution

The idea of “Super-organic Evolution” (Spencer, 1876, pp. 3-7) proposed by Spencer cannot be comprehended without first having a grasp of “organic evolution.” Organic Evolution displayed the fact that in an individual organism during its growth, maturity and decay. It may take into account that the actions and reactions going on between this organism and organisms of other kinds which its life puts it in relations with, nor it needs to consider that it can exceed these limits on passing to the phenomena that accompany the rearing of offspring. While recognizing the fact that parental co-operation foreshadows processes of a class beyond the simply organic; and while recognizing the fact that some of the products of parental co-operation, such as nests, foreshadow products of the super-organic class; it may fitly regard Super-organic Evolution as commencing only when there arises something more than the combined efforts of parents. Of course, no absolute separation exists. If there has been Evolution, that form of it here distinguished as super-organic must have come by insensible steps out of the organic. 

There are various groups of super-organic phenomena, of which certain minor ones may be briefly noticed here by way of illustration.

  1. Bees and wasps form communities such that the units and the aggregates stand in very definite relations. Between the individual organization of the hive-bee and the organization of the hive as an orderly aggregate of individuals with a regularly-formed habitation, there exists a fixed connexion. Just as the germ of a wasp evolves into a complete individual, so does the adult queen-wasp, the germ of a wasp-society, evolve into a multitude of individuals with definitely-adjusted arrangements and activities.

In this passage, Spencer argues that there is evidence that evolution has taken place in the same manner as the simpler orders of Evolution. So, therefore, both bees and wasps, different genera, exhibit it in different degrees. From kinds that are solitary in their habits, we pass through kinds that are social to small degrees to kinds that are social to great degrees.

  1. Some species of ants, like White ants, or termites (which, however, belong to a different order of insects), have shown the division of labour carried so far that different classes of individuals are structurally adapted to different functions. The most advanced in addition to males and females, soldiers and workers; and there are in some cases two kinds of males and females, winged and unwinged: making six unlike forms. Of SaĆ¼ba ants are found, besides the two developed sexual forms, three forms are sexually undeveloped—one class of indoor workers and two classes of out-door workers. And then, by some species, a further division of labour is achieved by making slaves of other ants. There is also a tending of alien insects, sometimes for the sake of their secretions, and sometimes for unknown purposes.

  2. Among rooks, they form communities in which there is a small amount of co-ordination and integration, as is implied by the keeping-together of the same families from generation to generation and by the exclusion of strangers. There is some vague control, some recognition of proprietorship, some punishment of offenders, and occasionally expulsion of them. A slight specialization is shown in the stationing of sentinels while the flock feeds. And usually, we see an orderly action of the whole community in respect of going and coming. There has been reached a co-operation comparable to that exhibited by those small assemblages of the lowest human beings, in which there exist no governments.

Rook at Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire, England.

Source: Click on the link to view - Link

  1. Gregarious mammals of most kinds display little more than the union of mere association. In the supremacy of the strongest male in the herd, there is a trace of governmental organization. Some co-operation is shown, for offensive purposes, by animals that hunt in packs, and for defensive purposes by animals that are hunted. According to Ross, by the North American buffaloes, the bulls of which assemble to guard the cows during the calving-season against wolves and bears. Certain gregarious mammals, however, as the beavers, carry social co-operation to a considerable extent in building habitations. Among sundry of the Primates, gregariousness is joined with some subordination, some combination, some display of social sentiments. There is obedience to leaders; there is union of efforts; there are sentinels and signals; there is an idea of property; there is an exchange of services; there is the adoption of orphans; and the community makes efforts on behalf of endangered members.

In his writing, Herbert Spencer discusses the idea that above organic evolution, there tends to arise further evolution in various directions. He argues that this Super-organic Evolution is not of one kind but of various kinds, determined by the characteristics of the various species of organisms among which it shows itself. Furthermore, he suggests that the highest order of Super-organic Evolution arises out of order no higher than that variously displayed in the animal world at large.

Spencer believes that the most significant form of Super-organic Evolution is that which human societies exhibit in their growth, structures, functions, and products. He refers to these phenomena as Sociology, which encompasses the study of human societies. Spencer suggests that these phenomena immensely transcend all other forms of Super-organic Evolution in extent, complication, and importance, making them relatively insignificant. Therefore, he focuses on studying the phenomena of human societies to gain a comprehensive understanding of Super-organic Evolution.

The Different between Super-organic and the Organismic Analogy

In Part 2 of Volume 1 of Principles of Sociology contains virtually all the theoretical statements of Spencerian sociology. Employing the organismic analogy, that is, comparing organic (bodily) and superorganic (societal) organizations, Spencer developed a perspective for analyzing the structure, function, and transformation of societal phenomena. Too often, commentators have criticized Spencer for his use of the organismic analogy, but in fairness, we should emphasize that he generally employed the analogy cautiously. The basic point of the analogy is that because both organic and superorganic systems reveal organization among component parts, they should reveal certain common principles of organization. As Spence stressed, between society and anything else, the only conceivable resemblance must be due to parallelism of principle in the arrangement of components (Spencer, 1876, p. 448).

Spencer began his analogizing by discussing the similarities and differences between organic and superorganic systems. Among important similarities, he delineated the following:

  1. Both society and organisms can be distinguished from inorganic matter, for both grow and develop.

  2. In both society and organisms, an increase in size means an increase in complexity and differentiation.

  3. In both, a progressive differentiation in structure is accompanied by a differentiation in function.

  4. In both, parts of the whole are interdependent, with a change in one part affecting other parts.

  5. In both, each part of the whole is also a micro-society or organism in and of itself.

  6. And in both organisms and societies, the life of the whole can be destroyed, but the parts will live on for a while.

Among the critical differences between a society and an organism, Spencer emphasized the following:

  1. The degree of connectedness of the parts is vastly different in organic and superorganic bodies. There is close proximity and physical contact of parts in organic bodies, whereas in superorganic systems, there is dispersion and only occasional physical contact of elements.

  2. The nature of communication among elements is vastly different in organic and superorganic systems. In organic bodies, communication occurs as molecular waves pass through channels of varying degrees of coherence, whereas among humans, communication occurs by virtue of the capacity to use language to communicate ideas and feelings.

  3. In organic and superorganic systems, there are great differences in the respective consciousness of units. In organic bodies, only some elements in only some species reveal the capacity for conscious deliberations, whereas, in human societies, all individual units exhibit the capacity for conscious thought.


Spencer, H. (1876). The Principles of Sociology, vol. 1 (1898). D. Appleton and Company.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post