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General · 8th October 2012
Ray Grigg
Termites and their collective consciousness raise some thought provoking questions about humanity. If termites can only express their true genetic identity in the amassed presence of their numbers — only then are they able to form complex social structures, build architecturally sophisticated mounds and endure eons of changing environmental conditions — what does this suggest of us? Is our character, with its complex impulses, motives and behaviour, shaped by the amassed numbers of us, just as with termites?

We, of course, are comparative biological youngsters without the long evolutionary experience of termites. But we do exhibit their essential characteristic of purposeful social behaviour when we gather together in small and large groups. Indeed, the larger these groups, the more complex our behaviour as tasks are invented, compounded and subdivided to fit escalating levels of intricacy. Hunters and gatherers evolve into priests and judges, patriarchs and elders into presidents and parliaments, caves and huts into palaces and skyscrapers, sandals and boots into cars and aeroplanes, berries and beads into money and banks, clubs and spears into rifles and bombs. As a species, we and our ancestors have outstripped the amazing accomplishments of the termite.

But do we have a comparable sense of collective consciousness? The answer requires that our awareness reflect on its own awareness, an exercise of self-inquiry that is always difficult because it requires making oneself into an object — just as a mirror reflecting another mirror conveys only the image of mirrors. Our sense of collective consciousness may be such an integral part of our human character that we would be the last to discover it.

We do, however, get some hint of collective consciousness with the so-called “Hundredth Monkey” phenomenon. The process was first observed in 1952 when a single female on the Japanese island of Koshima began washing the gritty sand from the yams she wanted to eat. Others began to copy the practice. When about 100 of the monkeys on this one island were washing yams, other monkeys on other islands apparently began washing their yams, too. The spread of this behaviour has be attributed to a kind of collective consciousness that is comparable to that in termite behaviour.

But we humans may have our own direct expressions of collective consciousness. Art seems to be a universal communication device that bridges the difference between cultures. Primitive images have a creative power that seems transcended place and time by connecting to the aesthetics of modern civilizations. The common heartbeat of all humanity's biological heritage expresses itself in drumming and rhythm, a universal medium of communication. Music from diverse cultures seems to link on a shared plane of understanding. Dance “talks” via the movements shared by all human experience. Colours, shapes and sounds often have universal meaning, as if they were all connected to a common symbolic language.

But a more ominous example of collective consciousness is the way history keeps repeating itself. Variations, of course, always exist from one civilization to another. But the pattern is disquietingly the same. Rising complexity is followed by unheeded warnings of vulnerability, then by collapse and radical reorganization. This pattern occurs so often that it suggests we are regularly victimized by a mass mentality that fails to recognize the fatal momentum propelling our behaviour. History fails to teach us because each civilization is so engrossed in its own collective consciousness that the lessons of the past fail to elicit a corrective response.

Unlike termites that seem to have no obvious means of reflecting on their collective consciousness, we do have language and mass media to build a common awareness. But this does not explain all human behaviour. Stock markets are notoriously irrational. Economic health moves in strangely rhythmical cycles as if all commercial activity were responding to some subliminal force that refuses to recognize the stabilizing effects of reason. New ideas grow slowly to a critical mass, after which they are impossible to suppress. Cultures and civilizations seem to move through periods of calm optimism and then anxious despair, as if these changing moods are uncontrollable and contagious.

So collective consciousness raises the more ominous question about who we collectively are as a species. Do we have a pooled intelligence that commits us to certain inevitable and unavoidable courses of behaviour, certain strategies that we repeat over and over again because it is in our nature to do so? Just like termites, this nature is our source of success and failure, salvation and undoing. If we were perceptive and attentive enough, we would notice the same patterns repeating themselves in different variations throughout history. Persian, Egyptian, Mayan, Khmer and Roman, even on remote Easter Islander, all rose and fell because the momentum of who they were carried them to their prescribed demise.

Could we be conscious enough of the warning signs to avoid a collapse of the global civilization we have built with our commerce, industry and technology? We have indications that this whole structure of human creation is under stress. The wall of limits looms. The general optimism of a few decades ago is shifting toward skepticism, with growing traces of pessimism. War is always present as a haunting and perennial human folly. And the environmental problems rushing toward us are large, ominous and inadequately addressed — amplified versions of the same ones that past civilizations repetitively neglected.

A review of history should cause us to wonder if we are programmed by our collective consciousness to continually repeat the same pattern of mistakes. Perhaps, however, the simple act of noting this repetition raises us above the level of the termite. Perhaps.