In his new book “The Superorganism,” out today, [E.O.] Wilson and his co-author, Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson – though not Holldobler – goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.
“The close kinship of the members of these groups is a consequence, not a cause, of their evolution,” says the ever-genial Wilson in an interview at his home in Lexington. He believes altruistic (or eusocial) societies developed in ecological conditions where food was plentiful enough to allow insects to practice “progressive provisioning,” in which a mother leaves its offspring with food, as some wasps or bees do. This creates a need for others in the insect society to stand guard over the young.
Given these conditions, Wilson postulates, an insect group experiencing a single beneficial genetic mutation – such as the ability to distinguish nest mates from outsiders, a trait many insects possess – might adopt altruism as a useful social behavior.
Read the whole article here