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Holobionts: a new Paradigm to Understand the Role of Humankind in the Ecosystem

You are a holobiont, I am a holobiont, we are all holobionts. "Holobiont" means, literally, "whole living creature." It ...

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Societal Holobionts: An Introduction to the Concept


God must be incredibly fond of holobionts, since He created so many of them. And He (or She) may be a holobiont as well. 


It once happened, that the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, uncontributing part the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment, but only to return it again, and redistribute it amongst the rest. (Plutarch, “Life of Coriolanus”)

In guerrilla warfare, select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerilla strategy, the enemy's rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated. (Mao Zedong, 1937)


Maybe it happened to you to spend hours waiting for a flight in a busy international airport. You are blocked there and, after having had enough coffee to make you walk like a shuffle dancer, you have nothing else to do but to wander aimlessly from one shop to another. Bookstores offer something to read but, perhaps more interestingly, they give you a chance to get hints of what other people read. A rare chance of a glimpse of other people’s minds in our busy world.

So, what are people reading, nowadays? A lot of magazines and books that you can find in an airport bookstore are about the two primeval human interests: food and sex (the latter usually not so explicitly presented as the former). Apart from that, you find plenty of material on everyday matters: cellphones and other electronic gadgetry, cars, travel, religion, and more. In addition, the typical international airport bookstore has a section on how to deal with other people. They are self-help books that claim to train you on how to manage your relationship with your coworkers, your friends, and your family.

Evidently, many people find that dealing with others is a difficult matter, enough that they need help and guidance. It is a little strange, because we are all the result of at least three hundred thousand years of evolution of the species called homo sapiens. Our ancestors survived because they were good enough at creating and keeping relationships with their neighbors that would help them in times of need. But, perhaps, living in the modern society, so bewilderingly complicated, is more difficult than living in a tribe of hunters and gatherers.

Are these books really useful? There are good reasons to be skeptical. The books often seem to be a mishmash of this and that, they are not quantitative, not based on solid theories, not related to experimental evidence. The latest fad in management theory is a book titled “Reinventing Organizations.” The title may be interesting, but the substance of the book may be criticized. According to the author, good management has something to do with a hierarchy of colors. Infrared is primitive and bad, while the shade of blue called “teal.” is modern and good. Why that should be the case, is not explained anywhere in the book. That doesn’t mean to disparage a book that may have good points, but maybe you will agree with us that such a classification is a little arbitrary, to say the least.

So, can we make some order in this chaos? Maybe yes. And we can try to do that using the concepts of “holobiont” and the related one of “empathy.” The idea is that human societies of all kinds are the result of evolutionary pressure and that those you find in our world exist because there is a reason for them to exist. Just as biological holobionts are a feature of the biosphere, there exist societal holobionts, a feature of the human social sphere. Societal holobionts are an example of “Complex Adaptive Systems,” (CAS) that is, systems that develop a condition of stability called “homeostasis” and that tend to maintain it when perturbed. These holobionts are virtual, unlike the microbes in your gut. So, we may also call them “virtual holobionts.

Let’s start with an example. The simplest kind of human organization is the least organized one: the crowd (you can also call it a “mob” or a “band”). It has no leaders, no hierarchy, no specializations. Yet, you recognize a crowd when you see one. Perhaps the first time when crowds were dealt with as something worth of interest was with the book by the French author Gustave le Bon “Psychologie des Foules, (1895) that was translated into English as « The Crowd, A study of the Popular Mind. ». Reading it today, you would probably judge it to be a poorly made political pamphlet. And, indeed, it had a certain success with right wing politicians. Nevertheless, it was one of the first studies of complex systems in sociology.

Crowds are not just a feature of human society; equivalents exist with many animal societies. They go with different names: storms (or flocks) of birds, schools of fish, herds of sheep, prides of lions, and there are other examples (for instance, a bacterial mat). In any case, they share the same characteristics: they are loosely bonded groups of individuals who may stay together for a while and dissociate back into single units at any time. But, as long as they exist, crowds (just like all human organizations) are groups of people linked together.

Let’s go deeper into the matter. If a crowd is an organization, albeit the simplest possible one, it could be described using those “organizational charts” that purport to describe how a company is organized. These charts are maps designed to describe the hierarchical territory of the company. They have also been used to describe the organization of entities such as the Sicilian Mafia and Drug Cartels. They can also map the relationships in a band of Chimps or Bonobos.

But an organizational chart can be much more than simply a static map that tells you whom you should see, for instance, to organize a shipment or to order a supply of something (or, if you are a male bonobo, where to find an available female). The chart tells us a lot on how the organization works and also something about how it developed over time. It is part of the field called “management science.”

A good way to interpret organizational charts is to see them as networks.  Network science is a relatively recent development that derives from a field called “graph theory.” It is something that deals with how points in space (called “vertices”, plural of “vertex”) are arranged in space in terms of pairwise links with other vertices. You see an example of a graph in the figure


You note that there are 6 vertices (also called “nodes”), each one connected to its nearest neighbors. In this case, the connections (“links” or “edges”) are not directional, but that may be explicit in some kinds of graphs. It may also be possible that a node is connected to several other nodes.

Graph theory is a branch of pure mathematics, and it deals only with geometric arrangements. Instead, “Network theory” (or “network science”) deals with applications of graph theory to the real world. In this case, the nodes are real entities: people, departments, servers, combat units, and much more. Also, the links are related to real methods of information exchange: documents, orders, radio signals, fiber optics, and more.

Armed with this a basic knowledge, let’s go back to the example of the crowd. The simplest crowd network we may imagine is one formed of just three people (or bonobos). Here is the graph.

You see that each node (one member of the group) is connected to his/her neighbors. Information flows from each node to the closest one. There is no hierarchy: all the nodes are the same, which is one of the characteristics of crowds/bands/flocks, etc. You can say that the relationship between the elements of this crowd is horizontal, as opposed to the vertical kind seen in hierarchical organizations such as companies, armies, etc, as we’ll see later on.

We can expand the graph to describe a system where there are more than three nodes. You see below several possible arrangements


In the first case (a), each node is connected only to its two nearest neighbors. It is a little like being squeezed in the crowd in a busy subway station – if you have ever visited Tokyo, you know what that means. In such a condition, you can only move together with the crowd, and you don’t see anything more than your nearest neighbors.

Things may be more complicated than that and, in the other images, you see how nodes may be connected to more nodes than just their near neighbors. In case (b) each node is in contact with 4 neighbors. It is still a crowd, but not so dense as case (a). Case (c) shows the possibility of long-range connections for some of the nodes. Maybe someone in the crowd is in contact with a friend in the same crowd, but using a cell phone. Case (d) refers to a kind of network that is called “fully connected,” meaning that every node is connected to every other node. In the real world, it is a rare occurrence, even though it may exist for very small networks. For instance, the 3-nodes example seen before is a fully connected network. All these arrangements are non-hierarchical, or “horizontal”.

All these examples are special cases where all nodes are not only identical, but have all the same number of connections. In most cases, this is not true and each element is connected to a different number of nodes.

The figure illustrates the variations in the number of connections. The left examples shows a network where every node has 4 links. The central one is called the “small world” network. Most connections are to the close neighbors, but some are long range. The right one has more links, randomly arranged, but it is not fully connected.

The reason why the central diagram is called “small world” deserves some explanation. It has to do with the distance (in terms of number of links) between nodes. In this kind of network, it grows proportionally to the logarithm of the number of nodes, so it is not as large as it would be if you had to crawl every node, one after the other, to reach a node on the other side of the circle. In a small world network, if you wanted to contact, say, the president of the United States, it is said that you need to go through no more than six steps, starting with a person you are in contact with. It is not exactly like this, but it is a long story. Let’s just say that it is a “natural” way in which networks tend to arrange themselves.

You may say that the number of connections provide an embryonic form of hierarchy in these networks. If knowledge is power, then more connections mean more knowledge and therefore more power. This hierarchical relationship is especially evident on the Internet. A site such as, say, the CNN is defined by an URL (Uniform Resource Locator) just like any other blog or site on the web. But the CNN has a hugely larger number of connections than the average web site and there is no doubt that it has much more power in terms of pushing memes in the memesphere. But, overall, these systems remain horizontal in the sense that CNN doesn’t have the possibility to order to bloggers what to publish or not to publish in their sites (so far). Many internet “bubbles” are relatively egalitarian, although some nodes (people or groups) carry more weight than others.

These non-hierarchical networks are the general representation of the concept of “holobiont.” The way Lynn Margulis described holobionts was in terms of a group of individuals of different species that moved together in the condition called “symbiosis,” a mutual relationship that provides advantages to all the creatures engaged in it. Holobionts imply an intricate network of relationships among the various member of the community, but no fixed hierarchical structure although, obviously, some members have more prestige and power than others. Margulis was thinking of microbial communities, but we can enlarge the definition to ensembles of animals (if you prefer the formal term, we could say “ensembles of metazoa”). But the organizational diagrams in the form of circles could describe them nicely.

But what is the advantage for an individual to be part of a crowd? (or a flock, or a herd, or a pride?). Are these individuals in a symbiotic relationship? Yes, they are, by all means. Symbiosis is a condition of mutual help that in systems is generated by the way the system is organized, NOT by the good will of the individuals (it would be hard to speak of good will among bacteria, for instance). The beauty of symbiosis is that all the creatures engaged in it strive for their own benefit but, in the process, they manage to benefit every other creature.

Said in this form, it sounds as an extreme version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” still today the basis of liberalism as a political ideology. The idea of the invisible hand has been much ridiculed over the years (you know how many economists it takes to replace a light bulb? None, it is done by the invisible hand!). But the idea is good if it is applied with a grain of salt.

Ugo Bardi (yours truly) and his coworker Ilaria Perissi discussed this issue in a paper that they titled “The Sixth Law of Stupidity,” where we argued that the opposite of stupidity is when human beings enter in a condition of symbiosis with other people. We also argued that stupidity is temporary while intelligence is long term, which means that people tend to learn from their mistakes. Even creatures not especially known for their large brains (say, bacteria) tend to learn from their mistakes – and those who don’t learn are eliminated by natural selection.

So, humans in a crowd are in a symbiotic relationship even though they may not recognize that. The crowd offers a certain refuge to its members. Maybe for humans it is not a general rule: when you are being shelled or shot, the worst possible idea would be to form a crowd that would attract the enemy fire. But, if you look at crowds in the animal kingdom, their utility is evident. Have you ever observed the behavior of a storm of birds? You may see them landing on a patch of grass to feed. If you get close, one of the birds may see you, be scared, and fly off. Immediately, the nearby birds will be alerted and fly off, too. In a moment, the whole storm will be flying away. In this case, the crowd (the storm) offers a danger-detection service that a single bird cannot have. 

More in general, a storm/flock/herd/crowd offers statistical protection. A predator is not interested in destroying the whole flock, only at capturing as many individuals as it needs. So, if the flock is large, the probability for an individual to be captured is low. Of course, humans tend to destroy even things they don’t need, but this is part of the 6th law of stupidity .

We have now a definition of how a holobiont is structured according to the network theory. We may want to represent it as a triangle and, thinking about that, there could be a relation with the triangular symbol “the eye of God.”

And, indeed, a triangle can be seen as the icon for both a holobiont and God (or the Goddess Gaia). But let's not go into theology, this introduction should be enough to understand what a holobiont is. The next step is the concept of hierobiont, a network partly or completely structured in a hierarchical manner. But we'll see that in another post.


  1. Thank you for the good introduction to the holobiont-as-a-network concept.

    When I used to work in a multinational company, one of my mentors used to say "the organization is an approximation", meaning that the org chart only maps part of the complex web of loyalties and commitments between people who sometimes go decades back in time.

    The best "management"-writer I have found is Manfred Kets de Vries, a Dutch psychiatrist-turned-management-teacher. In "The Dysfunctional Manager" he shares his observations after having worked many years with lots of disturbed managers. His view on the organizational chart is that it is a document-of-truce.
    It is an implicit agreement to temporarily stop the infighting and struggle-for-power. And the truce only lasts briefly, since the fighting between people who want to "climb the ladder" will restart at the slightest insult.
    In the battles, people are kicked out of the company, humiliated and bullied into submission, and then a new org-chart will appear. Usually accompanied with vague claims of "synergies" and "better support our customers"...

    It is truly difficult to work together, and empathy is the key to collaboration. I very much like the vocabulary of "non-violent communication" by Marshall Rosenberg. It helps me to understand and manage conflicts.

    What do you use to train your empathic muscle?


    1. Thank you for your interest, Goran. I see you went through several posts of this blog. Thanks also for the suggestion abut de Vries, I'll take a look at his work. About training your emphatic capabilities, I suggest that you follow the blog of Chuck Pezeshki "empathy guru" (https://empathy.guru/)