Social Niche Construction: Evolutionary Explanations for Cooperative Group Formation


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PhD thesis: a PhD thesis.
Social Niche Construction: Evolutionary Explanations for Cooperative Group Formation
Powers S.T.
Watson R.A.
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University of Southampton
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Cooperative behaviours can be defined as those that benefit others at an apparent cost to self. How these kinds of behaviours can evolve has been a topic of great interest in evolutionary biology, for at first sight we would not expect one organism to evolve to help another. Explanations for cooperation rely on the presence of a population structure that clusters cooperators together, such that they enjoy the benefits of each others' actions. But, the question that has been left largely unaddressed is, how does this structure itself evolve? If we want to really explain why organisms cooperate, then we need to explain not just their adaptation to their social environment, but why they live in that environment.
It is well-known that individual genetic traits can affect population structure; an example is extracellular matrix production by bacteria in a biofilm. Yet, the concurrent evolution of such traits with social behaviour is very rarely considered. We show here that social behaviour can exert indirect selection pressure on population structure-modifying traits, causing individuals to adaptively modify their population structure to support greater cooperation. Moreover, we argue that any component of selection on structure-modifying traits that is due to social behaviour must be in the direction of increased cooperation; that component of selection cannot be in favour of the conditions for greater selfishness. We then examine the conditions under which this component of selection on population structure exists. Thus, we argue that not only can population structure drive the evolution of cooperation, as in classical models, but that the benefits of greater cooperation can in turn drive the evolution of population structure -- a positive feedback process that we call 'social niche construction'.
We argue that this process is necessary in providing an adaptive explanation for some of the major transitions in evolution (such as from single- to multi- celled organisms, and from solitary insects to eusocial colonies). Any satisfactory account of these transitions must explain how the individuals came to live in a population structure that supported high degrees of cooperation, as well as showing that cooperation is individually advantageous given that structure.
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22/01/2012 21:05
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