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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 May 15;104 Suppl 1:8619-26. Epub 2007 May 9.

Insect societies as divided organisms: the complexities of purpose and cross-purpose.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA.


Individual organisms are complex in a special way. The organization and function of their parts seem directed toward a purpose: the survival and reproduction of that individual. Groups of organisms are different. They may also be complex, but that is usually because their parts, the individual organisms, are working at cross-purposes. The most obvious exception to this rule is the social insects. Here, the individuals cooperate in complex ways toward the common goal of the success of the colony, even if it means that most of them do not reproduce. Kin selection theory explains how this can evolve. Nonreproductive individuals help in the reproduction of their kin, who share and transmit their genes. Such help is most favored when individuals can give more to their kin than they give up by not reproducing directly. For example, they can remain at their natal site and help defend a valuable resource ("fortress defenders"), or they can ensure that at least one adult survives to care for helpless young ("life insurers"). Although kin selection explains the extensive cooperation and common purpose of social insect colonies, it also predicts a certain amount of cross-purpose and conflict behavior. Kin selection has predicted how workers and queens disagree over sex ratios, how potential queens struggle to be the colony's head, how workers try to produce sons, and how other workers often prevent them. Kin selection analysis of cooperation and conflict in social insects is one of the outstanding achievements of evolutionary theory.

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