Monday, May 04, 2015

Economic origins of ultrasociality

Gowdy and Krall, in a manuscript under review by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, argue that the transition to agriculture in ants, termites, and our humans species generated the need for the extreme role specializations and ultrasociality that distinguish us from social species that depend on foraging for food. (Interested readers can obtain a copy of the MS from me).  I pass on a clip from the introduction, followed by their abstract.
With the widespread adoption of agriculture some 10,000 years ago human societies took on some important characteristics shared with social insects—ants and termites in particular—that also engage in the production of their own food. These characteristics represented a sharp break in the evolutionary history of these lineages and led to two important outcomes (1) ecosystem domination as a product of a dramatic increase in population size and much more intensive resource exploitation and (2) the suppression of individual autonomy as the group itself became the focus of economic organization. The evolution of agriculture in fungus-growing ants and termites, and in human societies, is an example of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar characteristics in species not closely related. In terms of genetics, ants, humans and termites could hardly be more different. Yet in all three lineages similar patterns of economic organization emerge through similar selection pressures. We use the term ultrasociality to refer to these lineages and we address the question of its origin through the fundamental question of evolutionary biology: “where did something come from and what were the selection pressures that favored its spread?”
Ultrasociality refers to the social organization of a few species, including humans and some social insects, having complex division of labor, city states and an almost exclusive dependence on agriculture for subsistence. We argue that the driving forces in the evolution of these ultrasocial societies were economic. With the agricultural transition, species could directly produce their own food and this was such a competitive advantage that those species now dominate the planet. Once underway, this transition was propelled by the selection of withinspecies groups that could best capture the advantages of (1) actively managing the inputs to food production, (2) a more complex division of labor, and (3) increasing returns to larger scale and larger group size. Together these factors reoriented productive life and radically altered the structure of these societies. Once agriculture began, populations expanded as these economic drivers opened up new opportunities for the exploitation of resources and the active management of inputs to food production. With intensified group-level competition, larger populations and intensive resource exploitation became competitive advantages and the “social conquest of earth” was underway. Ultrasocial species came to dominate the earth’s ecosystems. Ultrasociality also brought a loss of autonomy for individuals within the group. We argue that exploring the common causes and consequences of ultrasociality in humans and the social insects that adopted agriculture can provide fruitful insights into the evolution of complex human society.

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