Having spent 36 months thinking together about the social evolution of the honey bee, it’s worth pausing to reflect that the whole social enterprise rises or falls on the system’s ability to rein in individual selfishness. E.O. Wilson, the “father of sociobiology” and Pulitzer prize winning science writer, reminds us that we humans are eusocial organisms like the honey bees, products of natural selection acting at two levels – the level of individual and the level of group. We need both: individual selection promotes fit and vigorous members, while group selection promotes harmony and cooperation. But these two levels are unavoidably in tension, their interests only partly aligned. Selfish behavior may succeed in the short term and its genes spread within a group, but if those selfish genes undermine the competitiveness of the group, then ultimately the group dies and those selfish genes go extinct. All things equal, a group of altruists will probably out-last a group of selfish narcissists. Or, as E.O. Wilson puts it, “. . . individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.1”
Compromise between individual and group interests is therefore necessary if lower levels of biological organization will ever coalesce to form higher ones, whether it’s cells cooperating to form an organism, workers cooperating to form a colony, or humans cooperating to build a stable society. Wilson again humanizes the abstraction:
“So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing positions between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as the ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots – the outsized equivalents of ants.1”
Cooperation is the answer, and it’s a great understatement to say that cooperation is a winning strategy in Earth’s natural history. Cooperation is the dynamic that leads to organisms, and organisms are the things life works with. Every one of our bodies is a testament to the success of organismality – the bundling together of lower biological entities into more-or-less cooperative and contiguous genomes: cells coalescing into tissues coalescing into organisms coalescing into superorganisms coalescing into communities: where will it end? Organisms are the operative unit in biology; where there is life, there are organisms. And for beekeepers, it should warm our hearts to know that in the honey bee colony we see the very same evolutionary processes recapitulated that give rise to all organisms. Queller and Strassmann put it this way: “The evolution of organismality is a social process. All organisms originated from groups of simpler units that now show high cooperation among the parts and are nearly free of conflicts. We suggest that this near-unanimous cooperation be taken as the defining trait of organisms.2”
But notice that these authors call that cooperation “near-unanimous.” As breath-taking as the scope of social evolution is, we cannot forget that evolution is optimization, not perfection. Among those coalesced genomes bundled into organisms such as we, there are a few programmed to go rogue and rebel against the larger genome to which they are attached; indeed, among the necessary steps toward organismality is the synchronous emergence of checks and balances to constrain this very thing. But those constraints don’t always work. If the constraints break down in metazoan organisms such as humans, then those rogue genomes – we call them cancer cells – reproduce unchecked with devastating results to the organism. In superorganisms such as a honey bee colony there are also cancer “cells,” but these are reproductively active worker bees variously called outlaws, social parasites, or anarchists – workers that evade the checks and balances that keep other workers passively content raising their mother’s sons and daughters.
The power of kin selection theory is its ability to predict reproductive and behavioral outcomes based on