The evolutionary process is itself evolving. Perhaps the best example is the origin of new reproductive organizations that are capable of evolving by natural selection. Single celled organisms evolved into multicellular organisms, some of which – leaf cutter ants, for example – appear to have evolved into collectives that deserve the label superorganism.
Last week our group hosted a small workshop to bring together researchers that use different approaches to tackle how and why such transitions in individuality happens. The aim was to share insights from projects within our Templeton-funded grant, and to spread ideas to local Lund researchers.
The presentations generated a lot of great discussions, which continued over dinner and at the pub. Richard Watson showed how learning theory bring clarity to the conditions that are necessary for transitions in individuality to happen. Andy Gardner explained how focusing on lower-level evolutionary individuals – genes – can help to understand how conflicts between cells within bodies arise, evolve and become resolved. Charlie Cornwallis and Maria Coelho-Svensson discussed how one can put theory to the test using green algae that come together in groups. Social insects provide another interesting example, and Heikki Helanterä showed how they can shed light on the transition from solitary to collective life cycles.
Evolutionary transitions in individuality is fundamentally about explaining how a developmental organization evolves from social or ecological interactions between the lower-level individuals. This is difficult to address without paying attention to mechanism. Miguel Brun-Usan showed how mechanistic models of cell behaviour provide a window into the conditions that promote transitions in individuality. Some of the order comes from self-organization, a topic theoretically explored by Edith Invernizzi in the context of nest building in social insects. Finally, Jonathan Birch discussed another evolving relationship between the organism and its surroundings – the evolutionary route towards organisms that are capable of conscious thought.
Thanks to all the speakers and the many Lund researchers and students that attended the workshop. It was great fun and we cannot wait to see more from all of these projects.