The Major Evolutionary Transitions in Organismality
How reproductive cooperation and altruism can evolve by natural selection is one of the most fundamental questions in biology. Several insights emanated from Inclusive Fitness Theory, developed in the 1960s and 1970s: cooperation can be stable when interacting parties are unrelated provided they all increase their reproductive success, but altruism cannot evolve unless parties are related. This is because biological altruism is ultimately self-serving rather than self-sacrificing when expressing reproductive success in gene-copy currency. This “gene’s-eye” view of adaptive social evolution predicts that organisms will appear as if designed by natural selection to maximize the sum of future-generation gene copies coding for social traits via two possible routes: by direct reproduction and/or via the reproduction of relatives after adjusting for the difference in relatedness to the offspring of relatives versus one’s own.
Another important development has been the establishment of the Major Transitions in Evolution paradigm in the 1990s. This way of looking at the emergence of life’s complexity emphasizes that there have been a limited number of crucial transitions: when bacterial microbes merged to become eukaryote protists; when some such protists became permanently multicellular animals, plants, fungi and algae; and when some animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and termites evolved superorganismal colonies. However, the Major Transitions concept has not been formally connected to Inclusive Fitness Theory, and it remains to be seen whether cooperation between individuals of the same species can be captured by the same theory as mutualisms between individuals of different species. What is clear, however, is that Major Transitions always involved fundamental aspects of cooperation and altruism, and that stable adaptive outcomes cannot be understood unless we also understand the regulation of possible reproductive conflicts from first principles.
The Focus Group will use different conceptual and empirical approaches to advance our general understanding of the processes by which different levels of organismality evolved and were elaborated as distinct units of selection, despite the omnipresent corrupting forces of internal conflict.
The members of the Focus Group are: Jacobus J. (Koos) Boomsma (Convener), Ashleigh Griffin, Nancy A. Moran, Howard Ochmann, David C. Queller, and Joan E. Strassmann.
Jacobus J. (Koos) Boomsma