Foundations Of Cognitive Science


The roots of swarm intelligence can be found in early 20th century entomology (Wheeler, 1911).  William Morton Wheeler argued that biology had to explain how organisms coped with complex and unstable environments.  For Wheeler, “an organism is a complex, definitely coordinated and therefore individualized system of activities, which are primarily directed to obtaining and assimilating substances from an environment, to producing other similar systems, known as offspring, and to protecting the system itself and usually also its offspring from disturbances emanating from the environment” (p. 308).  Wheeler used this rather broad definition of “organism” because he proceeded to propose an unusual idea: that a colony of ants, considered as a whole, could be also classified as being an organism.  “He then argued that insect colonies, considered as wholes, demonstrated each and every one of the properties listed in his definition of organism.  These colonies became known as superorganisms.

Wheeler recognized that a superorganism’s properties emerged from the actions of its parts (Wheeler, 1926).  However, Wheeler also argued that higher-order properties could not be reduced to properties of the superorganism’s components. Wheeler defended the notion that higher-order regularities could not be easily reduced to lower-order properties by applying ideas that were also in vogue in Gestalt psychology (Koffka, 1935; Köhler, 1947).  Gestalt psychologists realized that many perceptual experiences could not be captured by appealing to the properties of their components.  Instead, they proposed a number of perceptual laws that applied to the whole, and attempted to explain these higher-order principles by appealing to the notion of an organized perceptual field.  Wheeler made very similar arguments as those made by Gestalt psychologists when arguing for a unique level of superorganismic properties:  “The unique qualitative character of organic wholes is due to the peculiar non-additive relations or interactions among their parts. In other words, the whole is not merely a sum, or resultant, but also an emergent novelty, or creative synthesis.” (Wheeler, 1926, p. 433).


  1. Koffka, K. (1935). Principles Of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  2. Köhler, W. (1947). Gestalt Psychology, An Introduction To New Concepts In Modern Psychology. New York,: Liveright Pub. Corp.
  3. Wheeler, W. M. (1911). The ant colon as an organism. Journal of Morphology, 22(2), 307-325.
  4. Wheeler, W. M. (1926). Emergent evolution and the social. Science, 64(1662), 433-440.

(Added November 2010)