Mark Moffett on Canopy Biology & The Human Swarm


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Most maps of the world render landscapes in 2D — yet wherever we observe ecosystems, they stratify into a third dimension. The same geometries that describe the dizzying diversity of species in the canopies of forests also govern life in other living systems, from the oceans to the linings of our mouths. Behind the many forms, a hidden order shapes how organisms live in and on each other — and this emerging discipline of “canopy biology” may yield important insights into modern urban life. Human societies, like gigantic swarms of ants, are elaborately coordinated super-organisms. In these enormous in-groups, one key feature is the anonymity of members. By studying a treetop world where organisms never see the ground that humans take for granted, structural ecologists glean lessons for the denizens of concrete jungles.

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week’s guest, Mark Moffett, did his doctoral work at Harvard under E.O. Wilson, helped fund decades of research with wildlife photography for National Geographic, and currently holds research positions at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and as an entomologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He has resisted conventional professorship in order to climb trees in over 40 countries and write four books on ecology and evolution. In this episode, we talk about the vertical dimension that theoretical ecology has largely overlooked, and the fruits of his investigation into the nature of societies — both ant and human.

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More on and by Mark Moffett:

Mark’s Website & Google Scholar Page

Mark’s SFI Virtual Seminar on Canopy Biology & SFI’s Twitter Thread

Ant colonies: building complex organizations with minuscule brains and no leaders

Comparative Canopy Biology and the Structure of Ecosystems

“What’s 'up?’ A critical look at the basic terms of canopy biology”

Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society?

Supercolonies, nests, and societies: distinguishing the forests from the trees

Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies

Why a Universal Society Is Unattainable

Divided We Stand: Patriotism vs. Nationalism

More related reading:

Marcus Hamilton, Robert Walker, Chris Kempes - Diversity begets diversity in mammal species and human cultures

Rodney Brooks & Anita M. Flynn - Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Related episodes of Complexity Podcast:

10 - Melanie Moses re: ant colony scaling and 3D chip architecture

17 - Chris Kempes re: stromatolites and scaling ribosomal and genetic volumes inside cells leading to multicellularity

39 - Eddie Lee re: fractal violence

43 - Vicky Yang re: out-group formation

20 - Albert Kao re: stalemates in collective computation

35 - Geoffrey West re: overlay of social networks in geographic space vs. cyberspace

70 episodes