Wired has a blog entry up where they reproduce the text of an email exchange with Bert Hoelldobler, an entomologist who is collaborating with E.O. Wilson on a new book which will argue for the relevance of higher levels of organization in evolutionary processes. In The Cooperative Gene evolutionary biologist Mark Ridley elucidates how multicellular organisms emerge from a coalition of genes all with the same interest because of their imprisonment within the individual (their replication being mediated by the sex gametes). I’m assuming that Wilson & Hoelldobler are going to attempt something similar for social organization. As I have noted before E.O. Wilson is now making a big push for higher level selection dynamics, but his own sentiments have always been favorable toward this idea. Eusocial insects are probably some of the best cases for an empirical assessment and examination of the theoretical possibilities within the multi-level selection paradigm. Richard Dawkins and his fellow travelers have never denied that levels of selection higher than the individual may occur, they have questioned its power in shaping evolution over the long term. In the case of eusocial insects I think the counter-argument is on its strongest ground because of the peculiarities and regularities of insect societies; but the larger project of expanding outside of the domain of this branch of the tree of life is I think going to be more difficult. Like the meme meme (so to speak) the idea of a super-organism is analogically appealing, but its tractability and utility in day to day evolutionary biology has often been less than evident. As they say, you shall know it by its fruits.
Update: Part II of the correspondence is up.
Note: Readers not familiar with the debate between the “British School” and the Americans should read Richard Dawkins’ essay Burying the Vehicle.
Related: Cooperation and multilevel selection.