One Big Orgainsm

The horrors of nature

Some authors have expressed horror at the evolutionary process that created us - and expressed the desire to "escape" from it - usually in some unspecified way.

Richard Dawkins

Prominent among these are Richard Dawkins - who describes nature as "the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence", and describes the process that made us as "wasteful, cruel and low".

He says that nature gave us a brain capable of "understanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them".

He describes humanity as: "the only potential island of refuge from the implications of [evolution]: from the cruelty, and the clumsy, blundering waste." [1]

He writes: "We alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" [2], and: "We, that is our brains are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. We do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason we should not rebel in a large way too." [2]

Lastly: "The unrefined world of natural selection is not the sort of world I want to live in." and "We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the waste, the callousness of natural selection. Our brains, our language, our technology make us capable of forward planning. We can set up new purposes of our own, and among these new goals can be a complete understanding of the world in which we live." [3]

Defeating natural selection

Is what Dawkins talks about remotely possible?

It is certainly clear that individuals can opt out of the evolutionary process - but that doesn't seem to do them very much good - and merely creates a world without their kind in it.

However there is another approach to defeating natural selection which seems more worthy of investigation:

Natural selection relies on competition between agents.

Without such competition it has no variation on which to act - and it loses the ability to select between variants - and so it can no longer direct evolution.

So - if the dominant organsms all fused together into one big organism - then perhaps they would no longer be the subject of evolutionary forces.

...and perhaps if all life fused together into one big organism, then perhaps natural selection would completely come to an end.

Life's fusion

The process of evolution seems to be characterised by building ever more deeply-nested heirarchies of organisms.

I have argued elsewhere [4] that humans and machines will form composite organisms - that the companies of today will come to increasingly resemble composite organisms - with their own inheritance mechanisms.

Similarly, I regard it as possible that whole governments will also come to play the role of organisms - with companies acting as their organs.

Today there are already some elements of global cooperation. There is - in some areas - a global marketplace. While this is more like an economy than an organism, an economy could turn into an organism over time.

Alternatively, one very successful dominant organism could clone itself many times, wipe out its major competitors, and then deliberately prevent itself fragmenting again - by using gene sequencing and error detection to eliminate any mutants at birth.

So - looking at our planet - it seems at least vaguely possible that it will eventually be occupied by a single, dominant organism that spans the entire planet.

Monopolies and mergers

In todays environment, while mergers and fusion into ever- larger bodies have a tendency to happen naturally, there are organisations dedicated to making sure that things don't gop so far that competition is eliminated, and a single organisation forms.

I refer here to the monopolies and mergers commission (called the competition and protection commission in some locales) - an establishment whose primary function is to prevent unions from occurring on large scales.

However, there is currently no equivalent to the monopolies and mergers commission for governments - though there may be something like one for political parties.

These organisations exist due to a choice of management strategy that mimics natural selection - by setting up multiple organisations and allowing them to compete.

Their job is a difficult one - it is challenging to prevent price fixing and other kinds of cooperative behaviour between supposedly competing companies.

Such a set up seems unlikely to last indefinitely, due to its wastefulness and lack of efficiency. Efforts should not be duplicated. Competitions should mostly be done under simulation, where failure is less expensive.

The monopolies and mergers commission may have a limited lifespan - and may wind up being decomissioned as a wasteful and unnecessary administrative structure.

Selection within organisms

In practice natural selection doesn't just occur between organisms. It also happens within organisms - where it's referred to as somatic selection. In the process of development many more cells are born than survive - and those that are not needed die or are killed.

So it seems unlikely that natural selection can be eliminated completely. However, this sort of natural selection would probably be considered to be not so bad - and its effects could be contained in a manner that prevented large-scale competition arising. The cells of an organism don't mind dying in the service of its owner. They even deliberately commit suicide so that other cells have more space and nutrients. There's not really any suffering involved - and it seems to be the suffering that is objected to and found to be aesthetically displeasing.

Selection within the organism need not happen very much. Some bits of the creature will inevitably die and need replacing through accidents and wear and tear. However, such problems could be minimised by using caution. Selection between components within the organism could be kept at low levels - and care could be taken to ensure no errors or variation are introduced.

The end of parasites and symbiotes

For all living organisms to fuse, the dominant creature would also need to eliminate all its parasites and symbiotes. Is that remotely feasible?

Wiping out your parasites may be important for an organism that wants to stop being the subject of natural selection.

Parasites often adapt rapidly to the weaknesses of their hosts - and they can kill large organisms.

Normally, there's no selection pressure to eliminate parasites beyond a certain point. When they are at the level of a minor inconvenience, the threat is hardly worth defending against. So it seems unlikely that a creature would normally bother wiping out all its parasites.

However, let's suppose that - for some reason - the creature decided to make this its mission in life - perhaps in order to ensure its future security.

The experience we have with creating engineered complex systems suggests that any complex organism is likely to be prone to parasite infections - and that eliminating them is very challenging - and while we have had some successes we are still nowhere near wiping out the parasites of our own species.

However, it doesn't seem logically impossible. Maybe - with sufficient effort and application - perhaps the dominant creature could succeed in eliminating all its parasites.

Symbionts may also present a danger. Unless their germ line is carefully controlled, their evolution may run the risk or rivalling or outstripping the dominant organism. An organism wanting to end natural selection completely would probably be likely to put a stop to it in its symbionts as well - or at least severely control and restrict their possibilities for evolution.

One world

The historical growth of human civilisations strongly suggests that at some point a world government will be established.

This is what will become the most likely candidate for the single large organism that may stand a chance of putting an end (at least temporarily) to natural selection on the dominant organisms.

It would develop one or more large brains, perhaps located in industrial centres. A global immune system would form - perhaps an outgrowth of today's hospital network.

One universe

One world is an old dream. However, as a matter of fact, that there is more than one world.

In particular our solar system has multiple worlds in it - and it seems likely that life will visit them.

Similarly, there are multiple stars in the galaxy - and it seems likely that many of them too will in the future also harbour life.

Can the idea of nature as one large organism possibly survive being physically divided by such large distances and such impressive physical barriers?

Ants in a nest can survive some degree of physical separation - while still remaining functionally united as a single creature.

Perhaps even unification in the face of such large distances can't totally be ruled out.

Maybe one day - in the far distant future - the whole universe will be filled with a single living organism.

It could call itself "The Winner".

After the race is over

What force would then drive the resulting complex system?

Self-directed "mutations" would probably determine the course of the system after that point.

There would be no particularly obvious motivation towards self-improvement any more.

The organism could literally do as it liked - without fear that some other organism would eat its lunch - at least as long as it was fairly confident that it really was alone.

The respite might last until the organism dissolved into separate components again - and they began to compete with one another once more.


Nick Bostrom has written about the possibility of large-scale fusion of organisms that eliminstes natural selection.

He refers to what I call 'one big organism' as being a 'singleton'.

He has written some essays on the subject. One is entitled What is a Singleton? [5] and another is called The Future of Human Evolution [6].


  1. Richard Dawkins - A Devil's Chaplain (the essay)

  2. Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene (Ch.11 and endnotes)

  3. Richard Dawkins - The Big Question: Why are we here?

  4. Tim Tyler - The New Organisms

  5. Nick Bostrom - What is a Singleton?

  6. Nick Bostrom - The Future of Human Evolution

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