David Sedley: "Empedoclean Superorganisms"

David Sedley (Cambridge): "Empedoclean Superorganisms". Listen to the talk here.

For a handout complementing David's talk, click here


Empedocles’ mereological assumptions may be best accessed through his biology. At an early stage in biological history, he holds, an original set of single-specialism organisms, e.g. solitary hands, arms and eyes, joined up into complex organisms. Because only the fittest of these latter – ourselves included – survived, comparisons have long been made with Darwinian natural selection. My main contention will be that, to see why Love’s zoogony should proceed in so bizarre-sounding a way, the most relevant strand of the Darwinian tradition is the theory of superorganisms, promoted in particular by E.O. Wilson. On this view, what is naturally selected for is not the individual and/or its kin, but the social group. The paradigm is set by insect colonies, in which e.g. the queen serves as the genitals, and other specialised members as hands, teeth, intestines etc., as if the whole society were the real organism. An attraction, for some, of this superorganism model is that unlike mainstream Darwinism it places altruism rather than egoism at the centre of the evolutionary process. Not dissimilarly Empedocles’ Love, the cosmic force which first created those single-speciality organisms, must have meant them all along to seek out a cooperative existence, whose emergence in complex organisms was indeed a sign of her growing power.

In modern debate, the most extreme version of the superorganism theory is James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, which treats the world’s ecosystem as itself the ultimate organism. It is for analogous reasons, I shall suggest, that Empedocles’ periodic world organism, the divine Sphairos, is the ultimate outcome of Love’s ambitions. This spherical divinity is not a homogeneous blend of the four elements, but a single self-sufficient superorganism.