“It isn’t that two, three, twelve, or a hundred powerful people, whose names we all know, do the heavy lifting while the rest of us just get dragged along. No, it is every bee going out and doing their small part that makes the hive function.”
– Byron Reese
About Byron Reese
Byron Reese is a serial entrepreneur, having sold 3 companies and 2 going to IPO, and earned 5 patents. He is also an award-winning author of 5 books with 400,000 book sales so far, and keynote speaker to hundreds of audiences across 6 continents. His latest book is ‘We Are Agora’, examining whether humans are part of a superorganism.
What you will learn
- Exploring bees as superorganisms and society as a collective entity (03:05)
- Traits of human society as a superorganism (08:07)
- Questioning the traditional boundaries of the term “superorganism” (09:54)
- Perspectives on life, from the cellular level to the concept of superorganisms and beyond (13:52)
- Deep contemplation of AI’s role and limitations (16:32)
- How societies, from ancient to modern, display superorganism traits (20:37)
- Blending scientific theories with speculative concepts on human purpose (22:26)
- Collective action, kindness, and cooperation for survival and progress (25:56)
Unpublished Introduction to Living Networks by Ross Dawson
We Are Agora by Byron Reese
Stories, Dice, & Rocks That Think by Byron Reese
Wasted by Byron Reese
The Fourth Age by Byron Reese
Infinite Progress by Byron Reese
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
The 4 Billion-Year History of AI’s Large Language Models by Byron Rees and Brett A. Hurt
Ross Dawson: Byron, it’s fantastic to be talking to you.
Byron Reese: Thank you so much for having me.
Ross: You’ve got a new book, Agora. What’s the heart of the idea?
Byron: It started at Boy Scout camp. I was a nerd but I was a Boy Scout. When you go to Boy Scouts, you sign up for merit badges. The merit badges are all about woodcraft. One summer I went to Boy Scout camp and there was a nerdy merit badge. It was bookkeeping. I said that’s what I want to do at summer camp is to learn accounting, so I signed up for it. I showed up and this old grizzled man came out and said, there was no such thing as a bookkeeping merit badge, it was a typo and I had signed up for beekeeping.
Ross: Oh my God.
Byron: That’s a true story about how I became a beekeeper. What I learned about bees is something you know that they’re superorganisms. Just like a bunch of cells come together and make a bee, and that bee has different attributes in those cells. Bee is a different organism and yet it isn’t. It’s not the sum of those cells. It’s something emergent beyond them. But then I learned that the bees themselves come together and make another organism: a beehive. Now, it would be tempting to think of that metaphorically, like, Oh, that’s like an organism. But what I came to learn is no, that’s an animal.
A beehive is an animal. It’s actually a warm-blooded animal. It regulates its body temperature to 97 degrees. Bees are cold-blooded. It has a long lifespan, maybe 50 or 100 years, whereas bee doesn’t. That’s an actual animal. There’s even a tradition that when a beekeeper dies, you go tell the hive, because the hive, at least at some level, needs to understand that.
I asked a simple question which is if a bunch of cells comes together to form a bee, and a bunch of bees comes together to form a hive, a superorganism, was that true for humans? A bunch of cells come together to make a human but do a bunch of humans together become another creature, not a metaphor, not touchy-feely, but in a purely biological scientific sense, does it become an animal, and therefore it has emergent abilities, it thinks on its own, it has its own goals, and it’s conscious and all of that? I write in my books not knowing the answer to the question. That’s why I write them. They would bore me if I didn’t.
I asked a question, and I wrote a book. My answer changed as I wrote it, and I concluded that there is an animal. I believe it. It’s not a religion, it’s a scientific fact. I gave it a name, and I call it Agora. Agora was the marketplace in ancient Greece, where all the people came together. That was the heart, energy, and soul. I thought it was a fitting name for the creature. That is what I wrote an entire book about. What statements can I make that are falsifiable that would potentially prove that? I came up with a series of those that I worked through in the book, as I tried to figure out if there was such a superorganism.
Ross: In my book ‘Living Networks‘, my thesis was that we are becoming a superorganism. It is latent within humanity for us to become a single superorganism, but it is in the process of becoming. One of the key factors that enabled that, of course, was the internet. What will enable that a little bit more down the track will be brain-computer interfaces. A lot of it also is in our intent. We have many people working on these ideas of collective intelligence, what are the structures or the mechanisms whereby we can combine our intelligences to be more intelligent collectively than individually?
I think we weren’t superorganisms or less so anyway, but we are becoming more and it’s the nature of what sort of superorganism we become, that we are working on at the moment. One classic idea is if we have a superorganism, it has a mental state. Of course, we are already experiencing that we are schizophrenic, as a human race, we are divided. Do we want to be whole as we want to look at the mental health of the superorganism? This is something where we are shaping as we go then what we become as a superorganism and whether or not we are a healthy superorganism or not.
Byron: I think you’re dead on with that last part. Beehives don’t operate where half the bees are plotting, you could see the other half. That is very true. But I would suggest you set the bar too high. The superorganism exists when you observe emergent capabilities that none of the parts have. I think that’s been present in humans for about five or ten thousand years. There was an essay written by Leonard E. Read a long time ago called ‘I, Pencil’ where he says no human can make a pencil. Nobody knows all the steps. Nobody can fall the tree and dye that, and yet pencils get made. I think Agora, the superorganism makes them.
I think the superorganism was born with the city. In the introduction, the unpublished introduction to your book, you touch on a lot about how humans first came together and exchanged information. I would put the question back on you if ants, as simple as they are, are a superorganism, why would New York City not be a superorganism?
Ross: It is. As you say, we think about mechanisms or structures for collective intelligence. Classically, the market is one because we exchange, and we do things.
Byron: Put a pin there because I don’t agree with that.
Because you’re right, you can’t take a bee from a beehive and move it 50 miles away, and it goes on and lives a full life. You cannot take an ant and move it five miles away. I don’t think you can prop a human on a desert island. You certainly can’t drop a human without 5000 years of collective culture, knowledge, and scientific things, and expect them to thrive. But go ahead.
Ross: David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity says that we have our hospitable planet, but he says, well, no, actually we don’t, we’d die if we didn’t learn how to make things and help each other, and work together to be able to survive in not very friendly environments. But there still is becoming. That’s things where, if we are a superorganism, we are evolving in the nature of what we are as a superorganism, just through the fact of into internet, social media, a whole array of other things, which actually means we are a very rapidly evolving superorganism.
Byron: Yes, and no. You would agree a mouse is an organism and you’re an organism. One of the things before we started, I pointed out to you that I didn’t necessarily agree with you. You do a distinction between a human made up of cells and a bee colony that’s made up of bees. But couldn’t you make a compelling argument that a human being is a superorganism? We have all these cells and none of them have a sense of humor, and yet you have a sense of humor, and you’re not a roommate with yourselves, I think we can agree, they don’t get half the body and you get the other half, you’re formed by the pattern of them. Wouldn’t you say that a cockroach and you are both superorganisms or not?
Ross: Yes, something I’ve been thinking about recently is the continuity of perception of the identity, where all of our cells get replaced through the course of our lifetimes. Our bodies are different than before, yet we still have the illusion we are the same as when we were 5, 10, 20, 30, or whatever. I think that’s an incredible phenomenon. Because these cells change the nature of who we are. We are constructs.
Byron: We are ships of Theseus.
Ross: Yes, but we have what we could describe as an illusion of continuity, it is the same Me. Well, no. In many ways, it’s not the same Me. I think there’s an analogy at that level between the individual continuity of identity and the human continuity of identity as in saying, at humanity’s level, we feel we are still humans; and we are, of course. We have the same species. But when we go into the self into a superorganism, the nature of who we are collectively is so different. This is a transformation in humanity. We are becoming different. In so many ways, we are transforming our bodies. In various ways, we’re becoming cyborgs and so on. But at a higher level, at a level of humanity as a whole, we are becoming very different, almost unrecognizable from who we were.
Byron: I don’t know that I would agree with that. Shakespeare is still very readable. Iago and Lady Macbeth are still things. You can still read Thucydides. We aren’t actually any different. But back to the core point, which I think it oes like this. You have cells, which I think of as primary life, I call them primary life because they are unquestionably alive, but they are not made of living creatures, everything about them. They’re animated chemical reactions, they are alive. You so aptly pointed out in your introduction that we don’t know how to define life so what we do is just make lists of lifelike attributes and we structure them very carefully, not to include that you don’t want to include like computer viruses. That’s so true. I spent chapters on that. You captured it very elegantly in a few sentences.
I think cells are primary life. Cells come together and they form multicellular organisms that have these emergent properties. They come together and they form superorganisms. I think the superorganisms come together and form them. There’s no reason it doesn’t go all the way up. There’s nothing that’s changing. What happens is you have the superorganism when the part is specialized to such a degree they can no longer live on their own. As a result of their interactions, they have new emergent properties. They have new emergent capabilities that weren’t there before. I think that line of the beginning goes way up. By the way, lifespans go way up, your cells live a few days, you live 100 years, and Agora lives thousands of years. Then you could say, do a bunch of Agoras come together and form something? Again, we’re just talking about science and biology here.
Ross: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of artificial intelligence in either shaping, expanding, or participating in this Agora.
Byron: It will be less than yours, I’m sure. I wrote a philosophy book about AI called ‘The Fourth Age’, and it’s my best-selling book, so more copies in more languages and everything as in a written book together. I’m not supposed to say it’s a philosophy book about AI because evidently, that doesn’t supercharge sales. That’s it. I used to have a podcast, I had 118 guests on it. They were all the AI people. What a wonderful time to catch that moment where everybody’s still alive and they’re aware of the gravity of what we’re doing. I don’t think there’s been anything since the Manhattan Project where they knew they were doing something big. I asked all 118 people, do you think general intelligence is possible? All but three said yes, I do. I would be the fourth. I don’t believe that general intelligence is possible, and I don’t think you have to go spiritual to say that.
I think what you have to say is that there is something emergent in us, strong or weak emergence, I don’t know, that we cannot reproduce in a fab. I love AI. I just co-wrote an article called ‘The 4 Billion-Year History of ChatGPT’, where I talked about its intellectual significance is that it’s finally consolidating all of the knowledge of humanity into one knowledge base, and that’s huge. That’s a collective memory of this planet. When we used to have 50 or 100 billion web pages, now we’re going to have one. I think it’s huge. But don’t ask that thing to drive your car, or who you should marry. I have a high opinion of people. When people would say, yes, I believe we’re going to have general intelligence, I would say, do you believe people are machines? They would all say, of course, we’re machines, what else would we be? I do not think we’re machines. I have an intuition of that. But I could be wrong.
Ross: I agree with everything you say. My framing for my work this year is Humans plus AI. How that flows into Amplifying Cognition is this idea of how AI helps us think better. This is both individual. I think there are many ways in which our individual intelligences can be augmented. The whole Doug Engelbart frame is all about intelligence augmentation. But what is more interesting is how does this enable collective intelligence. What are the mechanisms? Part of it simply is having access to these large language models means we can access any human who’s written anything in a distilled, stochastic fashion. That’s already giving access to individuals to human work at scale. I think there’s now a point where we can start to bring together and say, how do we, as groups, think better facilitated by these tools? Again, I think this evolution of the superorganism? Yes, we are. Let’s say we are superorganisms now. But we can become or evolve faster using these tools.
Byron: It sounds like you’re more like a technium guy. Kevin Kelly’s concept. Your smiling, so you must be familiar with the concept. Noosphere, which you referenced in that introduction of yours, which isn’t as biological and scientific as I’m trying to be in my writing. It’s a great awakening of just coming together at something. Kevin Kelly sees technology as the central thing that…
Ross: I’m human-centric. Absolutely completely.
Byron: Yet you don’t think we were a superorganism before technology. You write about the centrality of rapid communication and you were drawing all the analogies between the rate of our communication but how is Ur during the time of Gilgamesh? How is that not the same thing? It’s cockroach to humans, but it’s the same thing. They’re still the Agora. They’re still all people getting together and exchanging ideas. They’re specializing and they’re able to collectively do things like put a person on the moon or make bronze or whatever, that no individual can do as a creature.
Ross: In a way, I’m far more interested in the ‘Becoming’ than where we’ve come from. Whether to debate whether in the Middle Ages we were superorganisms or not, is of less interest to me. Yes, maybe, maybe not. You can have very rich, interesting debates around it. I’m interested in now and the future, and it is absolutely we are ‘Becoming’ and it is this process of the evolution of the superorganism. Back when I was a boy, I said I’m interested in human evolution, and that’s still the story of my career and what I’ve followed. It is how we understand human evolution and further positive human evolution. We are superorganism and whether we were ages ago or not, is less that we are. Now my focus is saying, in what way are we ‘Becoming’ a superorganism? That’s my most interesting area.
Byron: I’ll jump onto that. Let’s switch gears and talk solely about the future now because I have a theory. Science does not answer Why questions. Science loves How. How did that happen? When did that happen? What happened? But Why, it changes the subject. It really doesn’t like Why. I think I have a scientific answer for Why we are here. Why do humans form a superorganism? Let me throw it and you tell me what you say. Of course, you and many of the listeners knew about the Gaia hypothesis. James Lovelock’s idea is that all life, everything down to the bacteria all function as a single organism. He was never too specific about whether it was a living organism or functioned as one, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes.
If a guy exists, then the question is, what does he want? It would presumably want what all living things want, it wants to survive, and it wants to reproduce. But wait a minute, should it worry about dying? Oh, yes, it should worry about dying. This planet is going to get hit by a big asteroid that is going to reset it, it will. It’s a statistical certainty. I wrote a book about why are people different than animals. The question is, why is there just one of us? You can argue about the relative levels of intelligence of dolphins or whatever, but come on, let’s all be real. There’s us and there’s everything else. Why? Why just one? I came to the conclusion that intelligence is really self-destructive and risky. Bacteria aren’t intelligent, they do just fine.
Carl Sagan’s answer to the Fermi paradox was that when you get smart, you blow yourself up. If you’re Gaia, if you’re a planet, with or without consciousness, doesn’t matter, and you fail to evolve into an intelligent life force that can come together and do something like deflect an asteroid, you get hit by an asteroid to die. Of course, if you evolve, 20, or 30, or 50, they blow themselves up. If you evolve one, and there have never been a few of them, they never can do all that much. But there’s this Goldilocks zone, where you evolve one intelligent species, very risky, they may blow themselves up, could be, but that’s your only hope; and to grow the population from a billion years, and they can do it. To me, that is the future. I think Agora exists. It sounds like cheesy science fiction. I think Agora exists to deflect that asteroid.
Ross: Yes. My question is what do we need to be doing now to make the directions positive from here?
Byron: I would like to answer that question. I’m going to just tell two stories, and then I’ll be quiet. The first one is do you know the story of that 1972 airplane that crashed in the Andes with those rugby players on it?
Byron: I read an account that there they are ragtag and hopeless. One of them, Nando, was listening to his radio and he heard over the radio that the search for them had been given up. They were presumed dead. He went back and he told everybody, he said, I have some great news. They called off the search, and we’ve been given up for dead. Everybody’s like, why in the world is that great news? He said because it means we’re going to get out of this on our own. Now, when I read that, I wonder if he would have said that and if he’d been into that. We live in such an amazing age, five minutes after I asked that question, I had his email address. I emailed him, and the next morning, I had his answer. He said, oh, yes, I said that and that’s exactly what I said. It was the best thing I could say, that was such bad news.
Okay, hold that thought. In 1947, a guy in San Francisco jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and committed suicide. As it happened, at Stanford, there was a psychologist who researched suicide. He was like, I’ll go check that out. He goes up to San Francisco and he goes to that guy’s apartment. He was unmarried, he had no family, and nothing wrong with his life, but he had left a suicide note, addressed to no one, he didn’t know who was going to find it. The note said I’m going to walk to the bridge now. If one person smiles at me along the way, I will not jump. I think that’s the answer.
Aldous Huxley at the end of his life said after 45 years, I’m ashamed to say that my sole conclusion is we should all try to be a little nicer to each other. I don’t think he should have been ashamed to say that. Superorganism’s weak Agora can do anything. Agora can deflect an asteroid, it can make a smartphone, it can put a person on the moon, it can make a pencil, but only to the extent that people work together. What that means is, it isn’t that there are two or three or 12 or 100 of the power people whose names we all know, and they do the heavy lifting, and the rest of us just get dragged along. No, it it is every bee going out and doing their little thing to the hive that makes the hive function.
If you think of a clock, it isn’t the biggest gear in the clock that makes a clockwork, it’s all the gears together that make it work. To close all that up, to go back to Nando, where he said, we got to get out of this on our own, he intimated he didn’t really mean it. But the thing is, he was right. Because you see, once they knew they had given up the search, those rugby players stopped looking to the sky for their answer. Then they only had one other place to look which was inside. No hand of god reached down and plucked them up and saved them, those rugby players saved themselves. So that’s it. That to me is the message, there is no help coming for us. But that’s okay.
Because you see 10,000 years ago, there were just a few mating pairs of humans left and yet we survived. How did we survive through the doggy dog attitude of every person for themselves? No. We find skeletons of people who had to be cared for in their old age. We survived because we stuck together and we were kind to each other. I think the world has changed by you smiling at that person who’s walking to the bridge. I would put no bigger burden on anyone than that. I’ll put one on them, which is to try to be a little kinder.
Ross: That is awesome. Did you tell these stories in the book?
Byron: Yes. Nando and the suicide one but not Huxley.
Ross: That’s fantastic. Sometimes it’s the stories that bring the messages to life. We can be very complicated and rotate about all these things. But I think in a way, you’re absolutely right. It just comes back to the…
Byron: You seem genuinely moved.
Ross: I am.
Ross: I am as well. Every time I tell that story about that suicide person, I break up inside because it takes a little, and the burden on any individual is not how can I change the world, the burden is just how can I be a little better today than I was yesterday. Believe it or not, that’s all it takes to build a utopia.
Ross: That is awesome. I think that’s a great point to round out this conversation, but there’ll be more. Where can people find the book? Find your work?
Byron: I’m the easiest guy in the world to find. My name is Byron Reese. Go to byronreese.com. My email address is email@example.com, and I’m all over the place. The book is called ‘We Are Agora‘. It’s about ‘are humans a superorganism or not’.
Ross: Fabulous to reconnect after so many years, Byron. Wonderful work, and really can’t wait to read the book.
Byron: Thank you for having me.