The term stigmergy was coined in the 1950’s to describe the structures that organisms build – things that are “outside” the organism, but clearly a fundamental part of that organism’s life. Giant termite mounds or ant hills or bee hives are as much a defining part of the animals that build them as their wings or legs are. The beautiful shell that murex and other snails build is another example of a stigmergy structure.
Which leads to the existential question (that termite philosophers no doubt endlessly debate) as to what are the borders of that which constitutes the “self.” As one website puts it:
“Selfness” resides as much in the extracellular stigmergy structure as in the cells.
My dearest friend, Michael Sacofsky, showed me a recent article by Jackie Levi suggesting an explanation to the age-old custom of reciting the austere prayer known as Kol Nidre on the evening of Yom Kippur. That passage, in abstruse technical legal jargon, dissolves the vows that people took over the year. Levi’s point is that as we approach the new year and the potential to start things over, we are saddled with all the baggage that we have accumulated around us. Our habits, the way we present ourselves to others and the persona we have created, our social context – all these things constrain us, limit our capacity for change, and drag the “old” us into any attempt to start afresh. Kol Nidre annuls those vows and breaks the chains that hold us back from reassessing our goals and practices as the year begins.
In short, Kol Nidre reminds us that we are not defined by our stigmergy structures. To human beings, “essence” and “self” depend on ideals and values, on will and commitment, and on actions and practice. The moment we truly change course on those levels, we are different – and we will begin to build other stigmergy structures that are better suited for the new place that we want to be.
We are not snails, and there is more to us than just our external shells.