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multilevel and group-only traits, adapting an example suggested to me
by the biologist Michael Wade involving the ¬re ant (Solenopsis geminata).
Individual ¬re ants have the ability to sting small predators when they
are threatened, and this stinging action is often effective in deterring
such predators. Fire ants can also coordinate their individual stinging
behavior by emitting pheromonal signals, and this coordinated stinging
repels larger predators that attack the ant colony. The ability to sting is
a multilevel trait in that it is a trait that both individuals and groups can
possess. The capacity to deter large predators (or defend the nest) by
stinging, however, is a group-only trait, a trait that only groups of ¬re ants
possess.
In the next two sections, I shall discuss each of these traditions in some
detail before moving, in sections 5 and 6, to some critical analysis that
I hope sheds light on both. These traditions represent both insight and
confusion. Part of my aim will be to distinguish discovery from disease.


3 the collective psychology tradition
The collective psychology tradition has its roots in post-Commune
Parisian and French social thought, lasting roughly from 1870 to 1920.
Aspects of the tradition have been the subject of a number of detailed
professional historical studies. The tradition was largely motivated by and
focused on two sweeping, related social changes: a heightening in the vis-
ible actions of politically disenfranchised or marginalized individuals in
groups, including industrial strikes and peasant uprisings, and the in-
creased activity of socialist and anarchist political organizations. These
two social changes were certainly related, and the collective psychology
tradition conceptualized their relationship in a particular way: as two
manifestations of the very same phenomena, the rise of the crowd.1
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science
270

Although there are works that foreshadow the dark picture of the
crowd painted within the collective psychology tradition, the tradition
itself begins with the historical accounts of the French Revolution and
the Paris Commune by Hippolyte Taine in the mid-1870s, and reaches
an apotheosis in 1895 with the publication of the best-known work in the
tradition, Gustav Le Bon™s La Psychologie des foules, translated into English
simply as The Crowd. Authors in the tradition include Scipio Sighele and
Pasquale Rossi in Italy and Gabriel Tarde, Emile Zola, Henry Fournial,
and Emile Durkheim in France. The collective psychology tradition sig-
ni¬cantly shaped theories of “mass psychology” and political groups in
the early twentieth century.2
The above mixture of lawyers and criminologists, historians and an-
thropologists, novelists and social theorists here suggests that although
authors in the collective psychology tradition often invoked the name
of science, theirs was not simply a distant, academic perspective on new
social phenomena. Rather, the collective psychology tradition actively in-
¬‚uenced how the very phenomena it studied was perceived and acted on
by those in political power. It was as much constituted by and appealed to
the popular imagination as by and to scholarly research. A number of the
works in the tradition became instant and long-term national bestsellers,
and their authors were consulted by a range of political authorities about
how best to deal with “the crowd” as a political entity.
The importance of the concept of a crowd, its unifying force for un-
derstanding contemporary social life in France in the last quarter of the
nineteenth century, and why the psychology of crowds provides the key
to understanding social upheaval, are brought out clearly in the early
pages of Le Bon™s The Crowd. Near the outset of his Preface, after linking
individuals and their abilities to the “genius of the race,” Le Bon says,

When, however, a certain number of these individuals are gathered together in a
crowd for purposes of action, observation proves that, from the mere fact of their
being assembled, there result certain new psychological characteristics, which
are added to the racial characteristics and differ from them at times to a very
considerable degree.
Organized crowds have always played an important part in the life of peoples,
but this part has never been of such moment as at present. The substitution of
the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one
of the principle characteristics of the present age.

The concept of the crowd is important to making sense of the social and
political climate, claims Le Bon, because the action of crowds has come to
replace that of individuals in the public sphere. The “crowd” that Le Bon
Group Minds in Historical Perspective 271

is interested in is not simply a gathering of individuals, however: It is an
organized crowd or a psychological crowd that exercises this heightened
in¬‚uence over the direction of history. As such, crowds are not simply
aggregations of individuals, but something more. When such a crowd
exists,

The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same
direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed,
doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly de¬ned characteristics. . . . It [the
organized crowd] forms a single being, and is subjected to the law of the mental
unity of crowds.3

This putative law claims that crowds destroy the individuality of those
that belong to them, psychologically unifying and homogenizing them
so that they act as one. We shall return to consider this law shortly. The
point to note for now is that the key to understanding the behavior of
crowds, something that we can all observe, is their underlying psychology,
something to be discovered. It is a putatively empirical or observational
study of the mental life of the crowd that is provided by the collective
psychology tradition.
Le Bon™s focus on a special type of gathering of individuals, one in
which an organized or psychological crowd is formed, however, is only ap-
parent, as both the rest of his introduction and Part III of The Crowd make
clear. Having stated that his time is the era of crowds, Le Bon elaborates
by discussing the ways in which the “popular classes” have entered into
political life, and the increased “power of the masses” via labor unions,
parliamentary assemblies, and electorates. Understanding the psychology
of crowds is crucial to ameliorating the effects of these political changes,
and to controlling the masses within the existing political framework be-
cause such groups are themselves organized crowds. What we might call
gatherings represent but one type of crowd, but their psychology is also
the psychology of a diverse variety of collectivities, “crowds,” many of
which need not be aggregated in space and time as gatherings are.
Whether there is such a kind of thing as a crowd in this broad sense, a
kind that could be the object of scienti¬c study and generalization, partic-
ularly of psychological study and generalization, requires closer scrutiny.
The term “crowd” within the collective psychology tradition encompassed
small and large gatherings (for example, mobs), associations constituted
chie¬‚y by membership (for example, political parties), and institutional
abstractions (for example, electorates). All of these are social collectiv-
ities, but very different sorts of collectivities. The idea that each has a
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science
272

psychology, a set of underlying mental dispositions and traits, let alone
that all share a common psychology, seems doubtful.4
By contrast, the idea that there might be general rules about social
control that can be formulated and exercised on a variety of levels, and
that these can be uncovered by understanding the “psychology of crowds,”
does provide an arena in which a broad, uni¬ed concept of crowds may
operate. Thus, we can use our crowd psychology, claims Le Bon, to see
why an indirect tax on consumer goods will be more readily accepted by
“the crowd” than will a direct tax on income; to select and in¬‚uence a
jury in a trial; or to counteract the illegal acts of an angry mob.5
As several authors have noted, although Le Bon borrowed heavily from
earlier authors in what I am calling the collective psychology tradition,
his emphasis on the practical political consequences of “understand-
ing crowds” shows a greater debt to Machiavelli™s The Prince than to the
nascent social science to which he explicitly gestures. Indeed, The Crowd
became extremely in¬‚uential within French military circles prior to the
outbreak of the First World War, and a number of Le Bon™s subsequent
books placed less emphasis on the danger posed by the crowd than on
delivering advice on how to regiment and control groups of people in
order to extract the best from them.6
As might be expected, the collective psychology tradition drew on de-
veloping psychological views of the individual, particularly on what have
been called irrationalist theories of individual psychology invoked to ex-
plain individual deviance and breakdown. The real key to understand-
ing the psychology of crowds was to recognize the ways in which such
a psychology was diametrically opposed to the psychology of individuals
in everyday life. The fundamental juxtaposition, which we have already
seen in passing in the quotes I have given from Le Bon, was between the
rational, conscious, and controlled individual, and the irrational, uncon-
scious, and potentially uncontrollable crowd.7
The historian Susanna Barrows has pointed to the debt that the col-
lective psychology tradition owed to Jean-Martin Charcot™s work on hyp-
nosis and suggestibility as a rising form of irrationalism about individual
behavior. Hypnosis provides one mechanism by which an individual can
be changed from a thinking, rational, conscious agent to an unthinking,
irrational, unconscious agent. Forming a part of an organized crowd,
claims Le Bon, constitutes another way of bringing about such a trans-
formation in an individual. This contrast appeals to the emotionality of
individuals in a crowd, as opposed to their rationality as individuals in ev-
eryday life. Le Bon cites the sentiment of invincibility, the contagiousness
Group Minds in Historical Perspective 273

of sentiments, and suggestibility as the three features of individuals that
cause crowds to have the psychology they do.8
The attribution of a heightened level of emotion in crowds, and the
contrast between rational individuals and emotional crowds, allowed
the crowd to be characterized in terms of dominant social dichotomies.
The psychology of the crowd was described as both feminine (rather than
masculine), and primitive (rather than civilized), ascribing to crowds the
putatively inferior minds of women and savages. This identi¬cation of
crowd psychology, manifesting and reinforcing a form of democraphobia
in the late nineteenth century, was seized on in the fascistic appropriations
of theories of mass psychology in the early twentieth century, including
in the work and thought of both Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler.9
This brief summary suggests three components at the core of the col-
lective psychology tradition: (i) a deep mistrust and fear of crowds; (ii) a
way of understanding their psychology that drew on and rei¬ed existing
gendered and racialist thinking; and (iii) a self-image of thinkers from
diverse intellectual backgrounds forging a new science, that of the psy-
chology of the crowd, of real practical import. As some of my comments
about Le Bon suggest, however, alongside this overarching framework in
which crowds were viewed negatively and pessimistically, there was also
a more enthusiastic view of what only crowds, not individuals, could ac-
complish, a view that built on perhaps only (iii) above.
This optimistic strand to the collective psychology tradition extended
from roughly 1895 until 1920 and was particularly prevalent amongst
some of the most in¬‚uential participants in the emergence of both psy-
chology and the social sciences, particularly sociology and anthropology.
Wilhelm Wundt™s V¨lkerpsychologie (discussed brie¬‚y in Part One), Emile
o
Durkheim™s collective representations, and William McDougall™s group
mind each constituted the basis for conceptualizing groups of individuals
in a more positive light. Collectively they represent attempts to theorize
about the products of group actions as cultural achievements. The pro-
cesses leading to these achievements remain conceptualized as the un-
derlying psychology of the group, and as such were viewed as irreducible
to changes wrought on an individual. But this group mind was no longer
dark, destructive, and to be feared. Rather, its formation was crucial to
diverse social accomplishments, ranging from military victories to the dis-
tinctive progressive political organizations associated with the established
and emerging democracies within Europe.10
It was within this more optimistic strand within the collective psy-
chology tradition that one ¬nds a vision of group psychology as both
Cognitive Metaphor in Biology and Social Science
274

a meliorative and celebratory project. In the work of McDougall and
William Trotter written self-consciously in the shadow of the First World
War, groups constitute a natural environment for the development of
basic human instincts, the foremost of which is gregariousness. It is thus
important that humans form the right sorts of group so that this positive
instinct can be properly nourished and play a role in directing individ-
uals into constructive rather than destructive behavior. This conception
of the group mind gave its study within social psychology and the social
sciences a sense of importance and urgency in making a difference to the
directions in which society as a whole were to take.11
These two strands to the collective psychology tradition “ its original,
pessimistic view of the group mind and its later, more encouraging view “
both need to be kept in mind as we consider other developments of
the group mind hypothesis. For the group mind has often been viewed
exclusively through either a negative or a positive lens.


4 the superorganism tradition
Unlike the collective psychology tradition, the superorganism tradition
has not been well canvassed by professional historians. The chief dis-
cussions of this tradition are to be found in brief historical precursors or
afterthoughts in broader reviews by contemporary biologists, such as that
on social insects by Edward O. Wilson and on group selection by David
Sloan Wilson. As such, these are very much internal histories, told by those
who form part of the research lineage whose history is recounted.12
The apparent intricate social harmony and organization of the “social
insects” “ the Hymenopteran wasps, bees, and ants, as well as the termites “
has been invoked as a model for moralizing about human society for
centuries. Unsurprisingly, it is these social insects that have been taken
as paradigms within the superorganism tradition, a tradition central to
the biological sciences from roughly 1900 until 1950. Rather than view-
ing itself as intermeshed with and building on existing common-sense
beliefs about group behavior, as did the collective psychology tradition,
the superorganism tradition set itself apart from prescienti¬c, anecdo-
tal reports on and claims about the groups on which it focused, insect
colonies. Their systematic study, however, remained linked to a wider
understanding of prosocial life.
The earliest work in this tradition that utilized the concept (even if
not the name) of the superorganism was in plant ecology, where there
was an early recognition of the various levels at which living systems
Group Minds in Historical Perspective 275

were organized. Ecology was founded as a science studying communi-
ties of organisms, and early in its history Frederic E. Clements intro-
duced the idea that the key to understanding changes in communities of
plants over time was to view those communities themselves as complex
organisms. These complex organisms themselves formed plant-animal
communities or biomes, and both complex organisms and biomes were
viewed as more than the sum of their individual parts. Clements treated
biomes as subject to developmental regularities, whereby the succession
of biomes could be viewed as moving from immature to mature states,
something that could be measured in terms of species numbers and diver-
sity. This is the beginning of the treatment of populations of organisms
as having a physiology. This physiological, organismic view of popula-
tions came to play a crucial role in the Chicago school of ecology headed
by Warder Clyde Allee, especially in the experimental work of Thomas
Park.13
Ecological work in this broader tradition was in part inspired by obser-
vation of the ways in which individual organisms, both within a species and
between species, operated in harmony with one another, from mere co-
existence to active cooperation. This observation, made initially in plant
communities, also motivated similar developments in animal ecology.
Although research in both plant and animal ecology covered a wide range
of forms that sociality and community took across the living world, it was

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