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The Portuguese Man O'War and the Individual

Becky Ripley and Emily Knight examine individualism. Via a colonial jellyfish. Are we one or are we many?

Strange things dwell out in the open ocean. Bobbing atop the waves, Becky Ripley and Emily Knight meet one such creature, the Portuguese Man O’War. With its bulbous air-sacs and trailing tentacles you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a jellyfish, but you’d be wrong. It’s a colony, a society of tiny individual animals, who work together to eat, hunt and reproduce as one.

In the Age of the Individual, we humans like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient little nodes who don’t need nobody. But that perspective gets called into question when you consider where we live. Thanks to some complex maths and some incredible data-crunching, we’re beginning to see the cities we inhabit in a different light. They grow, move, breathe, and die, just like a living organism, according to strict mathematical principles. Just like polyps in a Man O’ War, are we really any more than cogs in a machine?

Featuring Marine Biologist Dr John Copley from the University of Southampton, and Geoffrey West, Theoretical Physicist from the Santa Fe Institute.

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14 minutes