Co-operation & Community








The genetic evolution of eusociality


Kevin Loughran




Martin Nowak, Corina Tarniţă and Edward Wilson criticised kin selection / inclusive fitness theory as an explanation for the genetic evolution of eusociality.1


However, I believe that they share with kin selection / inclusive fitness theory a fundamental assumption which is not acknowledged and which is open to question: that is, that co-operation / altruism / eusociality are outcomes of a process of evolution, a movement from a state of separate existence to a state of (sometime) co-operative behaviour and forms of association which then can become ‘genetically prescribed’.  It is an assumption of original solitude.


John Maynard Smith saw this process of evolution as recurring through time.2  He proposed a series of evolutionary movements (or ‘flourishes’) in which ‘competitive entities’ joined forces to form stronger, larger units upon which the process of natural selection could work.  The emergence of co-operation among our human ancestors was but the most recent of these flourishes.


But is there or can there be or has there ever been a state of isolation, of original solitude from which individual life forms emerge to enter into forms of association with each other?

Peter Greenberg in Nature (2003) acknowledged that until recently bacteria were considered to be self-contained and self-sufficient individuals; but now it is recognised that bacteria can organise into groups and communicate with each other.3  Henry Lee, Michael Molla, Charles Cantor and James Collins observed how a small number of bacterial cells that have developed resistance to an antibiotic help non-resistant neighbouring cells in fighting off the antibiotic – an “altruistic communal interaction.”4


The assumption of original solitude implies that organisms move from one state of existence (competition) to another state of existence (co-operation etc.) by a process of evolution.  But Dale Kaiser and Richard Losick described co-operation and communication between cells of the Myxococcus Xanthus (MX) soil dwelling bacterium.5  On the other hand, Gregory Velicer, Lee Kroos and Richard Lenski predicted from studies of the MX bacterium that cheating would be common among natural populations of MX.6  So both co-operative behaviour and competitive / individualist behaviour are identified within a population of the one (primitive) organism.  They are not alternative explanations of the same behaviour but explanations of different behaviours at different times.


There is a theory that the earliest life may have been a primordial soup of RNA molecules and that "teams" of molecules "got together" to perform tasks which they could not manage alone.  This theory is supported by the work of Niles Lehman and his team at Portland State University in Oregon.  They created three RNA molecules that could repair each other.  It was the first time that a network of more than two molecules had been created, and it opened the door for larger networks of co-operating molecules.7  


I would propose that competitive behaviour and co-operative behaviour are recurrent and parallel themes of existence from the earliest and most primitive life forms to human beings and human societies.  I note that, in the model proposed by Henry Lee et al., the first state in the emergence of eusociality is the formation of groups within a freely mixing population.  However, they do not discuss the recognition of common interest or identity which, surely, would be a pre-condition of individual organisms coming together in a group.  Nor do they discuss communication or the means of communication between individual organisms which again must be a pre-condition of the organisms coming together in groups.



Kevin Loughran


2011 (revised 2015)



1  Nature 466, 1057-1062 (26 August 2010)


2  Quoted in: A Tale of Two Selves, Science (Washington DC, A.A.A.)  290  949-50 (3 November 2000)


3  Nature 424  134 (10 September 2003)


4  Nature  467  82 (2 September 2010)


5  Why and How Bacteria Communicate, Scientific American  52-57 (February 1997)


6  Developmental Cheating in the Social Bacterium MX, Nature 404  598-600 (6 April 2000)


7  Nature 491 72-77 (1 November 2012)
















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