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Social insects point to non-genetic origins of societies

From her work studying social insects, Arizona State University biologist Jennifer Fewell believes that these remarkable animals suggest a an alternate cause behind the development of complex societies. In a viewpoint essay in the September 26 issue of the journal Science, Fewell argues that complex social structures like those seen in social insect communities can arise initially from the nature of group interactions -- the inherent dynamics of networks.

The ability of certain animals to form complex social systems -- particularly humans and social insects like bees, ants and termites -- is considered by many biologists to be one of the pinnacles of biological adaptation and complexity. Social organization allows organisms to share labor, to specialize in tasks and to coordinate efforts. Through organization, social animals accomplish remarkable things - they build colonies supporting millions of individuals, maintain multi-layered social systems, manage complex farming and food production systems, and build elaborate designs and constructions, from giant self-cooling termite towers to skyscrapers.

The development of social systems is often assumed to be driven by species modifications arrived at through natural selection. Social characteristics such as caste systems and complex behaviors have been thought to be traits programmed by genes, created through evolutionary processes. Though insect social systems are in many ways as complex as human societies, Fewell contends that the relative simplicity of the insects themselves argues against the systems being created solely by the evolutionary development of biocomplexity in the individual organisms.

"We look at human groups and we think we have these elaborate systems of interaction because we are elaborate beings, but when you look at an ant, you know that it is not an elaborate being," she said. ", When you see how elaborate their societies are, you realize that there is another
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Contact: James Hathaway
hathaway@asu.edu
480-965-6375
Arizona State University
26-Sep-2003


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