For the first billion years or so of life, the only organisms were prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria). Each was a solo operation, competing with others and reproducing copies of itself. But then, around 2 billion years ago, two bacteria somehow joined together inside a single membrane, which explains why mitochondria have their own DNA, unrelated to the DNA in the nucleus. These are the two-person rowboats in my example. Cells that had internal organelles could reap the benefits of cooperation and the division of labor (see Adam Smith). There was no longer any competition between these organelles, for they could reproduce only when the entire cell reproduced, so it was “one for all, all for one.” Life on Earth underwent what biologists call a “major transition.” Natural selection went on as it always had, but now there was a radically new kind of creature to be selected. There was a new kind of vehicle by which selfish genes could replicate themselves.
Single-celled eukaryotes were wildly successful and spread throughout the oceans. A few hundred million years later, some of these eukaryotes developed a novel adaptation: they stayed together after cell division to form multicellular organisms in which every cell had exactly the same genes. These are the three-boat septuplets in my example. Once again, competition is suppressed (because each cell can only reproduce if the organism reproduces, via its sperm or egg cells). A group of cells becomes an individual, able to divide labor among the cells (which specialize into limbs and organs). A powerful new kind of vehicle appears, and in a short span of time the world is covered with plants, animals, and fungi. It’s another major transition. Major transitions are rare. The biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry count just eight clear examples over the last 4 billion years (the last of which is human societies). But these transitions are among the most important events in biological history, and they are examples of multilevel selection at work. It’s the same story over and over again: Whenever a way is found to suppress free riding so that individual units can cooperate, work as a team, and divide labor, selection at the lower level becomes less important, selection at the higher level becomes more powerful, and that higher-level selection favors the most cohesive superorganisms. (A superorganism is an organism made out of smaller organisms.) As these superorganisms proliferate, they begin to compete with each other, and to evolve for greater success in that competition.
This competition among superorganisms is one form of group selection. There is variation among the groups, and the fittest groups pass on their traits to future generations of groups. Major transitions may be rare, but when they happen, the Earth often changes. Just look at what happened more than 100 million years ago when some wasps developed the trick of dividing labor between a queen (who lays all the eggs) and several kinds of workers who maintain the nest and bring back food to share. This trick was discovered by the early hymenoptera (members of the order that includes wasps, which gave rise to bees and ants) and it was discovered independently several dozen other times (by the ancestors of termites, naked mole rats, and some species of shrimp, aphids, beetles, and spiders). In each case, the free rider problem was surmounted and selfish genes began to craft relatively selfless group members who together constituted a supremely selfish group. These groups were a new kind of vehicle: a hive or colony of close genetic relatives, which functioned as a unit (e.g., in foraging and fighting) and reproduced as a unit. These are the motorboating sisters in my example, taking advantage of technological innovations and mechanical engineering that had never before existed. It was another transition. Another kind of group began to function as though it were a single organism, and the genes that got to ride around in colonies crushed the genes that couldn’t “get it together” and rode around in the bodies of more selfish and solitary insects. The colonial insects represent just 2 percent of all insect species, but in a short period of time they claimed the best feeding and breeding sites for themselves, pushed their competitors to marginal grounds, and changed most of the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems (for example, by enabling the evolution of flowering plants, which need pollinators). Now they’re the majority, by weight, of all insects on Earth.
What about human beings? Since ancient times, people have likened human societies to beehives. But is this just a loose analogy? If you map the queen of the hive onto the queen or king of a city-state, then yes, it’s loose. A hive or colony has no ruler, no boss. The queen is just the ovary. But if we simply ask whether humans went through the same evolutionary process as bees—a major transition from selfish individualism to groupish hives that prosper when they find a way to suppress free riding—then the analogy gets much tighter. Many animals are social: they live in groups, flocks, or herds. But only a few animals have crossed the threshold and become ultrasocial, which means that they live in very large groups that have some internal structure, enabling them to reap the benefits of the division of labor. Beehives and ant nests, with their separate castes of soldiers, scouts, and nursery attendants, are examples of ultrasociality, and so are human societies.
One of the key features that has helped all the nonhuman ultra-socials to cross over appears to be the need to defend a shared nest. The biologists Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson summarize the recent finding that ultrasociality (also called “eusociality”) is found among a few species of shrimp, aphids, thrips, and beetles, as well as among wasps, bees, ants, and termites:
In all the known [species that] display the earliest stages of eusociality, their behavior protects a persistent, defensible resource from predators, parasites, or competitors. The resource is invariably a nest plus dependable food within foraging range of the nest inhabitants.
Hölldobler and Wilson give supporting roles to two other factors: the need to feed offspring over an extended period (which gives an advantage to species that can recruit siblings or males to help out Mom) and intergroup conflict. All three of these factors applied to those first early wasps camped out together in defensible naturally occurring nests (such as holes in trees). From that point on, the most cooperative groups got to keep the best nesting sites, which they then modified in increasingly elaborate ways to make themselves even more productive and more protected. Their descendants include the honeybees we know today, whose hives have been described as “a factory inside a fortress.”
Those same three factors applied to human beings. Like bees, our ancestors were (1) territorial creatures with a fondness for defensible nests (such as caves) who (2) gave birth to needy offspring that required enormous amounts of care, which had to be given while (3) the group was under threat from neighboring groups. For hundreds of thousands of years, therefore, conditions were in place that pulled for the evolution of ultrasociality, and as a result, we are the only ultrasocial primate. The human lineage may have started off acting very much like chimps, but by the time our ancestors started walking out of Africa, they had become at least a little bit like bees. And much later, when some groups began planting crops and orchards, and then building granaries, storage sheds, fenced pastures, and permanent homes, they had an even steadier food supply that had to be defended even more vigorously. Like bees, humans began building ever more elaborate nests, and in just a few thousand years, a new kind of vehicle appeared on Earth—the city-state, able to raise walls and armies. City-states and, later, empires spread rapidly across Eurasia, North Africa, and Mesoamerica, changing many of the Earth’s ecosystems and allowing the total tonnage of human beings to shoot up from insignificance at the start of the Holocene (around twelve thousand years ago) to world domination today.
As the colonial insects did to the other insects, we have pushed all other mammals to the margins, to extinction, or to servitude. The analogy to bees is not shallow or loose. Despite their many differences, human civilizations and beehives are both products of major transitions in evolutionary history.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012
Added to diary 27 June 2018