Ant colonies exhibit a high degree of social organization, even though no one is seemingly in charge. The queen ant is too busy laying eggs to tell worker ants what to do. The workers are nearly blind, have rudimentary brains and take orders from no one. Yet ants are capable of mobilizing armies, caring for their young and building elaborate climate-controlled structures. They make maximum use of a limited skill set, chiefly their ability to follow a chemical train laid down by other ants.
Why are ant colonies so much smarter than individual ants? Researchers have coined the term "emergent behavior" to describe certain traits that are not evident in individuals but that emerge spontaneously when groups of individuals interact. The term can be applied to the herding behavior of animals, the flocking of birds and certain types of group behavior in humans. Such behavior occurs without central direction and often without any of the individuals involved being able to perceive an overall pattern. For example, a single myopic ant foraging for food presumably has no idea it is leaving a trail of tell-tale pheromones that will enable other ants to follow him to supper.
The most common form of social organization in humans is hierarchical, with a leader at the top of the pyramid delegating power to minions who direct those lower down. Families, governments, corporations, academic institutions and armies are all fundamentally structured this way, whatever their external trappings. These institutions sometimes function amazingly well under the circumstances. But all too often they impress us as being a lot dumber collectively than the individuals who claim allegiance to them.
The early Christian church aspired to something different, before it adopted the Roman imperial model of organization in the fourth century. "The leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them," Jesus said. "It shall not be so among you." He told his disciples that "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." In effect, he was proposing to stand the pyramid upside down.
St. Paul likened the church to a body that functioned without a head, or human leader, as most organizations were constituted. Its head was the Christ, who emerged from the body itself to provide direction. "Wherever two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them," Jesus said, echoing the name that was first revealed to Moses in thick cloud and smoke on Mt. Sinai. There I AM in the midst of them.
Once we are willing to play our part, we discover that we are functioning on an entirely new level. The functional level of a body is the whole body, not one of the parts, even though each part has its own function. We are not just part of the whole; we are the whole of the whole, all of it. We are joined and knit together, as Paul says, each part performing our function, as the whole body grows and builds itself up in love.
I Corinthians 12:12-26