Small evidence for the primacy of co-operation

I share with many others the view that one of the best ways to understand human behaviour is to observe other animals in similar circumstances.

More often than not, this approach is applied to “higher” animals such as our chimpanzee cousins. But if our individual and social traits are products of evolution — and what else could they be? — then we should be able to find some pretty basic understanding from looking at older, “simpler” animals.

Ants, for example.

Like us, ants are social. We see something of ourselves in them. Their colonies have been compared to human cities, and their co-operative lifestyle has been compared to the networks of neurons in the human brain.

A new study, “Family-based guilds in the ant Pachycondyla inversa,” published in Biology Letters, seems to answer the old question: What came first, co-operation or complex societies? Did we develop complex societies because they facilitated co-operation, or did we begin to co-operate once our societies reached a certain, critical size?

The Biology Letters study produced results that suggest that co-operation came first: “Our results are the first example that suggests that genetically based division of labour may precede the evolution of complex social organization and facilitate the existence of low relatedness societies.”

This is not the place for a detailed summary of the study’s methods and results, but the highlights are interesting. In this particular species, “communal” colonies are composed of groups of genetically-different ants, with the offspring of each queen not only living together in one zone of the nest but also specializing in one kind of labour. Ants related to one queen may be foragers, while ants related to another queen may be soldiers, and so on.

We show that nest-mate workers from different matrilines engage in different tasks, have distinct chemical profiles and associate preferentially with kin in the nest, while queens and brood stay together. This suggests that genetically based division of labour may precede the evolution of complex eusociality and facilitate the existence of low relatedness societies functioning as associations of distinct families that mutually benefit from group living.

The queens are not sisters, and therefore the worker ants have low relatedness between groups. Yet the groups co-operate, each specializing in one of the different tasks necessary for the success of the colony as a whole.

But this isn’t really a post about ants.

Well, it is, but the ant study motivated me to think about the general proposition that, if we are truly and only animals, and if we’ve evolved from simpler forms, forms that still exist, then we can only benefit from studying other animals.

What we’re looking for are echoes of our own traits, either precursors from which we have developed or analogues that exist in many types of animal. In other words, the ways that other animals make their ways in the world are either early versions of our more complex behaviour or one successful strategy that many different animals continue to share.

Despite the evidence, there are still those who feel uncomfortable when some of us compare ourselves to other animals — especially when we do so without the once-obligatory “human specialness” qualifier. Not all of these uneasy people are religious fundamentals, or religious at all. It doesn’t take a magical father in the sky for us to want to be “special.” (Although, pardon the tangent, it does take a desire to be “special” for us to create a magical father in the sky.)

I’m not suggesting that we aren’t different from other animals. We certainly are. We have really bad claws and really powerful brains. We can’t fly, but we can build machines that do. And so forth. We are different, but we’re not special. Our special qualities are a matter of scope and intensity, not a matter of kind. We have all of the same kinds of chemistry and biology that other animals do. We just have more of them in some ways, and less of them in others.

It’s particularly discouraging when other proclaimed materialists, quite willing to discard the magical and the mystical, the divinity and the dualism, can’t quite bring themselves to get rid of the idea of human specialness, which they often, revealingly, call “human dignity.” It’s the evolutionary equivalent of nationalistic American “exceptionalism.”

And it’s just as unattractive.

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