Biologically speaking, individuals emerge when the interests of potentially distinct entities are tied together, such that they evolve as a collective. From this perspective, we can make sense of the biological diversity of individuals, and it becomes clear that individuality is not a binary trait, but a continuum encompassing entities as diverse as human cell lineages, ant colonies and fields of dandelions. Individual-like entities can emerge and compete at multiple scales simultaneously, from cells to super-organisms. Theorists have argued that selection at the level of coalitions has likely played a powerful role in shaping human evolution, and the cognitive architecture that drives us to competitively support our in-groups remains powerful today. Collective entities such as governments, corporations and other human institutions may co-opt this architecture to emerge as partial, non-sentient individuals evolving in parallel with humans. Such collectives tend to accrue power faster than individuals within modern societies, and technological advances are accelerating this trend. Should we expect more mercy from our collectives than our bodies offer to our cells?
Suzanne Sadedin is an evolutionary biologist and writer. She completed her doctorate at Monash University on simulation models of speciation and cultural evolution, and has since worked at the University of Tennessee, Harvard University and KU Leuven. Her popular science writing appears in Aeon Magazine, Quartz, Slate, and Huffington Post among others.