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Monday, November 10, 2008

New Ideas on the Origin of Altruism

The Superorganism, the new book by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, is out today. In the sequel to their Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 book The Ants, the biologists take another look at social insects—ants, bees, wasps, termites—and argue that evolution works on groups, not just the genes of individuals.
The "superorganism" is a colony of individuals that is formed and held together by the division of labor, complex communication, and altruistic cooperation—and, according to The Boston Globe, Wilson believes that this altruism occurs not because the animals share genes (and they want to improve the odds that these shared genes will be passed on to the next generation), but because of ecological circumstances that make altruism a useful social behavior for the group's survival. In other words, Wilson no longer believes that the widely accepted theory of "kin selection" explains the roots of altruism in nature.
"It's comforting to believe our deep concern for kin must be fundamental to our existence," Wilson tells the newspaper. "And it might turn out to be the case. But maybe we should look at non-kin bonding more closely, such as a brave soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save a squad." —Heather Wax