Selection, Sociality, and Systems

Recently, I have been trying to wrap my head around some of the major tenets of biology, I have enjoyed it so much that I commented to someone close to me that I was sad I chose economics for my PhD, I would have enjoyed biology with equal fervor. Nevertheless, I am in a pursuit to connect the various themes of the fields and create a stronger stance for both. We are, after all, a species of biological organisms whose very survival is dependent on our interactions. It is interesting to note the variety of systems of organization and hierarchy found throughout biology and economics; there seems to be an plethora of solutions to an infinite number of potential problems. Through learning and adaptation, we eventually get to the now. This also must mean that many systems of organization did not make it to the now, they failed to survive. What I mean to uncover in my research is the framework by which social interactions and systems evolve and persist. This is where I begin to look for the interconnections with biology.

I have come across a controversy in biology that hinges on the fitness and adaptability  of species: the debate between group and individual selection. Group selection exists when there is competition not only between individuals but between groups as well. And we know that individuals compete on a number of various levels for both resources and mates. But what about species that have high populations of sterile or non-reproducing organisms like ants or bee? Why would any one ant give up their life in order to save the lives of their fellows?

Hamilton’s theory of kin selection solved that paradox. Hamilton proposed that kin selection was an evolutionary strategy that favors the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, potentially at the cost of the organisms own fitness or survival. It must be noted that group selection and kin selection are not the same.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in the biology literature on the efficacy of Hamilton’s theory, how these play out in the real world, and how does altruism fit into all of this. The paper that reinvigorated the dormant argument between the different types of selection was published in Nature during August 2010. In “The Evolution Of Eusociality,” Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson argue that the previous four decades of theorizing using the kin selection theory had serious limitations and perhaps another methodology would be more useful and simpler. This caused a cascade of dissent from the biology community, and rightly so. One cannot shake a beehive and expect the residents to remain content.

The main issue seemed to be with the first half of the paper, which provided plenty points of contention for those who would adamantly disagreed with the paper, but the latter half included a well-developed mathematical framework by which their new theory could be expounded. Unfortunately, many of those who read the first half failed to check the appendix, which being a grad student is something I would forgive them for. (Who has time to check appendices?) The main point of their paper was that kin selection makes far too many simplifying assumptions and that Hamilton’s rule fails to describe a number of interactions that occur in the wild.

Seven years later, Jordana Cepelewicz writes in Quanta about the mathematical underpinnings of the growing debate. She brings in other research and further shows that the assumptions made by Hamilton’s rule fail to take into account a number of phenomena, especially when it comes to offspring:

In other words, it can be more important for an individual’s reproductive success to be consistent on average, rather than simply higher than that of others. In an uncertain environment, the bet-hedging value of helping others starts to look much more appealing as a strategy: It improves the odds that some shared genes will survive even if an individual’s own lineage dies out. Allocating some energy to helping others, even at the expense of further reproductive success, then works as an insurance policy.

There are even more variations when it comes to differences in hives, colonies, and species,

But even so, “there are a lot of subtleties within how those dominance hierarchies form and how those societies maintain stability,” said Sandra Rehan, a biologist at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s much more nuanced than just saying ‘something is social,’ or ‘something is eusocial.’”

She goes on to further claim that uncertainty is apt to breed altruism. This is equivalent to the economics concept of the Folk Theorem: when the end of a game is unknown, cooperation is sustainable. The problem with many one-shot and finite games is that cheating is a sustainable strategy in the last turn, but if someone will cheat in the last turn, why not cheat in the next to last turn and so on. Games of this kind tend to unravel, but if there is some probability of continuing the game, at say the species/multigenerational scale, then it is definitely worth cooperating at the individual level.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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