I Knew It!

Why am I writing about agriculture? It’s a long story that started at my first blog, kccomics.com. In May 2002 I was in a sciency mood. I was thinking about evolution. I was taught that group evolution doesn’t exist, natural selection occurs on the individual level and individuals don’t give two hoots others. An exception, kin selection, is used to explain the evolution of social organisms like bees and people. I started out my 2002 blog post with an overview of kin selection:

In animal behavior in Berkeley I was taught that social insects such as wasps and ants are willing to help each other, especially the queen, because the workers have a genetic relationship with the reproductives. Thus, the workers would help pass on their own genes by helping the queen raise her young.

Kin selection didn’t sit well with me though. Sure humans can identify kin, but what about insects? I guffawed that bees would have a concept of kin to select for. Of course the notion that bees count genetic relatedness is a misperception of sociobiology. It’s a misconception that sociobiologists spread themselves though*, so it took some thinking to transcend it. I came up with two reasons why social insects are successful, or reasons why they could evolve. Reason 1 isn’t really relevant here. Reason 2 is where the money is:

2. A worker which defies the society and does not help the queen is completely maladaptive. A nest of such workers would quite quickly doom themselves and its queen, which then stops their genes from being passed on. Since the alternative to a group of altruistic workers is so highly selected against by natural selection, it’s reasonable to think that any surviving insect societies would not be so self destructive.

I was halfway to a group selection explanation of social insects. What logically follows but I didn’t say is this: given limited resources, a nest that is more altruistic will outcompete a nest that is less altruistic, and is more likely to be selected for and reproduce. I ended my blogpost with this:

I’ll complete that thought at a later time.

I should have finished my thought! I was reminded of my past musings by an article in American Scientist. The article, co-authored by none other than E.O Wilson, originator of sociobiology and most famous social insect researcher, basically said the same thing, but better with a full explanation with tons of evidence. From slime molds to chickens in a lab, the authors show that selection can occur on groups, favoring successful teams over single extraordinary individuals working singly. Group selection is back, and I totally called it. So now I am making a concerted effort to put my other “crazy” ideas down to see if they pan out. And I’m going to finish my thoughts.

*This happens every time a sociobiologist says a gene is “selfish,” or “a gene wants,” or a gene has any expression of will or emotion. It’s almost inescapable given the limits of language, but man is it annoying!

Article Citation: Wilson DS and Wilson EO. 2008. Evolution “for the Good of the Group.” American Scientist. 96(5): 380.

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