David Sloan Wilson interviews Geoff Mulgan
Say the word “mind” and most people immediately think about the workings of an individual brain. The idea that something larger than an individual might have a mind seems like science fiction—but modern evolutionary theory says otherwise.
It is now widely accepted that eusocial insect colonies—ants, bees, wasps, and termites—have collective minds, with members of the colony acting more like neurons than decision-making units in their own right. For example, a critical stage in the life of a honeybee colony is when it fissions and the swarm that leaves must find a new nest cavity. Exquisite research by Thomas Seeley and his associates shows that the swarm behaves like a discerning human house hunter, scouting the available options and evaluating them according to multiple criteria. Yet, most scouts visit only one cavity and have no basis for comparison. Instead, the comparison is made by a social process that takes place on the surface of the swarm, which is remarkably similar to the interactions among neurons that take place when we make decisions. After all, what is a multi-cellular organism but an elaborately organized society of cells?
The reason that multi-cellular organisms and eusocial insect colonies both have minds is because they are both units of selection. Lower-level interactions that result in collective survival and reproduction are retained, while lower-level interactions that result in dysfunctional outcomes pass out of existence. What we call “mind” focuses on the lower-level interactions that result in the gathering and processing of information, leading to adaptive collective action.