Trees may be smarter than humans, collectively

When I was in Belgrade I read in their official travel guide that the city has been almost completely destroyed and rebuilt 44 times! I mind you that if the chance of not recovering after each destroy was as low as a lucky 5%, then the city would have perished by now with a chance of 90% after the forty fourth time.

Then it occurred to me what kind of organism could possibly lose a considerable chunk of its mass and yet survive that many times (spoiler: forests).

I couldn’t also find anything magical about the coordinates of Belgrade, or many other cities for that matter. It’s not like there is a non-exhaustible mine or a type of exclusive resource to that location has made people rebuild the city over and over again right from that location. It’d probably only take a bunch of survivors to take off again.

Or just look at Rome. It has lived under so many different tyrannies, governments and religions, and has even survived under different organizational paradigms from slavery, feudalism and capitalism. So here I try to explain what is that essence that has kept Rome alive as long as there was a little flame left to burn through the next regime?

All companies die. But cities never die.

Geoffrey West’s main findings and his flagship results in his body of work claims this.

He claims that cities not only save energy per capita, but also create more wealth – even per capita. This leads to a closed feedback loop for growth of the cities that is unprecedented in other super-organisms in nature [I would exclude forests before agreeing to this];

Anyhow he rightfully shows with mathematical models that cities, although can be destroyed or wiped out, do not die a natural planned death. Companies, people or animals on the other hand don’t have such double synergistical effect to their growth pattern. So once growth make their building blocks (humans or cells) so their exponential growth stops internally, and not due to exhaustion of resources, then they die. Something that doesn’t happen to cities. Concievably neither to forests.

Now, in the following comes my reading of Geoffrey West’s work, plus some more radical opinions and critics:

  1. All Superorganisms grow, but cities are different

Just like other organisms, superorganisms are formed based on smaller elements coming together to benefit from the economy of scale. So from the perspective of network science, technological or social networks aren’t necessarily different from biological networks. So their similarities make them “alive” in some sense. Cities, companies, forests (I would add civilizations, empires, religious institutions, coral colonies, hives, etc.) are all alive in a measurable and objective sense, although not necessarily sentient or conscious, which is a quite a different – subjective – story.

Typically all of these network have evolved to reach an equilibrium after growth, and for the same mathematics they all stop growing at a certain point, live up to a rather predictable age and then they die a natural death. By doing so – independent of their mechanism of reproduction – they leave room for the new to repeat the cycle. Nature has favored this sustainable code over an endless number of cycles.

Cities are different, they are in theory eternal.

While there are many parallels one can draw between all these superorganisms, in one sense “cities” seem to be an exception. They by design suck up the resources around them with no self-correcting mechanism. At least in our current economic model and so far as I know what has been experienced since the first human settlements, we don’t suddenly see a systematic and planned evacuation of a city or its division to smaller cities, say for people living a better life, repeating this cycle all over again. We just don’t have a code for it. This has not happened and will not as long as the economy of sclae gives the citizens a double edge to live there, which is again:

Similar to biology the bigger the organism gets the less energy its cells consume, per capita. But unlike biology the bigger you get the more “money” you gain per capita. West reports that such a positive feedback loop seems to be exceptional to the cities among all the other superorganisms.

2. The additional glue: Creativity and productivity, driven by money and language

Although just similar to biology that extra wealth per capita translates to smaller homes and less stuff in the center of megacities compared to the country side, because of the rules of the monetary system the economic power such money creates keeps attracting people to the big cities. Wages are higher in big colonies of humans because they seem to follow the rate of productivity, which is higher per capita in bigger colonies. “Stronger input-output linkages, better matching of employees and employers, and invisible but active knowledge spillovers in agglomeration economies” are believed to increased productivity resulting in higher wages. The so-called “agglomeration” economies shaped in desne areas increase creativity (the number of patents as well as wages follow a super-linear fit, fueling the exponential growth of the city. So in retrospect, among other tools the advent of language and the invention of money changed the dynamics of the human network, human creativity was unleashed and an exponential growth pattern, the civilization, emerged from that network.

On an individual level, this effect is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. We people living in big cities, capitals, and close to the power hubs may live in denser areas and consume less energy per capita to warm our habitat compared to residents of the countyside. But we also create more waste due to our higher economical level. We shop more, commute longer to work, travel more, etc. And this economically driven factor is the essense that makes us and our embeding super-organism, the city, rather different from the other super-organisms.

But what other network may also enjoy such a double edged growth patterns of the cities (super-linear gains at sub-linear gain). What other superorganism might be exceptional? Could it be forests and reefs, since their exceptionally long lifespan may tell a story about that additional glue. What keeps them together that could be analogous to the superlinear “glue” of the cities? Why does it seem that – similar to the cities – forests or reefs also last exceptionally long? Do forests and reefs – like their individual trees or corals – have an internalized code for death? Sure they can be killed off or shrink due to external reasons, but they don’t have an internal mechanism to die as a whole.

In other words, what do individual trees benefit from when they are in a bigger and bigger network? What’s in it for individual corals to be in a huge reef than a small one when they can’t even move?

3. Do trees have money, or language?

They ought to!

Also this is far-fetched, I think it could be inferred merely from the physics of the network, considering the emergent properties of a forest, that it is way more than a regular grid. It is a complex network, known to be not only highly-clusterized (having a high clustering co-efficient) but also with the properties of a small-world network. And thus without a deep knowledge of ecology or forestry even, one could possibly show that trees have a sense of networking, collaboration and communication (likely even symbolic communication with an inventory of signs).

Also, trees have documented track record of “trade”. But do they have a sense of currency, property law, and ownership? Do such concepts necessarily follow the invention of a formal *phonological* language? Those who claim Capitalism is a product of the nature, may have gotten something right.

In linguistics, “double-articulation” is known as the most crucial feature that makes human language differ from other forms of communication in nature. This is the ability to exploit the combinatorics of dual patterns and is extremely powerful since it makes symbolic computation possible.

It is, however, in my opinion very arrogant and naive of us humans to assume that such phenomenon first evolved with our species. Both rainforests and reefs seem to possess similar network properties (amongst others self-similarity, small-world property and high-clusterization) that I argue could be an infrastructure for a phonological [alphabetic] mind capable of symbolic computation, given a random mutation of dual patterns.

This may be the hidden story behind any of the evolutionary leaps on earth, and not just the last one. And it could mean, with all the seriousness, that rainforests or reefs, as intelligent superorganisms have purposefully invented animals in the same way we invented cars. And for short-term or long-term reasons. I do understand the co-evolution of animals with their echosystem, but do trees know who invented automobile?

It’s a testable hypothesis to see if rainforests have evolved, say, their own stock market somewhere down in the ground. I just wonder if like ours it ever crashes once in a while in some million years! A bit more far-fetched than that, the urbanization and the human experiment, us, could be one of those.

Does vegetation has similar properties as urbanization? Do rainforests possess a collective intelligence comparable to that of Silicon Valley, Wall Street or Holley Wood? Are they creative, productive and experimental?

How crazy is that?! Not crazy at all.

How testable is it? I believe, enough!

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