Saturday, October 10, 2009

ethologists weigh in on obama's nobel....,

Wired | When a warring termite colony loses its king and queen — the only members capable of reproduction — then its survivors merge with the victor colony, treating genetically unrelated former enemies as if they were siblings.

In the short term, this seems to make no sense. But in the long term, because replacement royalty is recruited from among worker bugs, it’s the losers’ best shot at eventually reproducing.

“You could go off and start your own colony, but that’s risky,” said Philip Johns, a Bard College evolutionary biologist. “This way, there’s a good chance a king or queen may die, and then you have a chance at taking over.”

The drama of termite succession, described Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest addition to a long, rich history of research into insect altruism, which has fascinated and perplexed scientists since Darwin.

At its most extreme, insect altruism takes the form of eusociality, in which entire insect castes are unable to reproduce, and devote their lives to caring for other colony members. This is what makes giant insect colonies possible. But through a framework of classic evolutionary genetics, it doesn’t compute. Organisms are supposed to be driven to reproduce their genes.

The conundrum was solved for a while by Bill Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist who showed that eusociality could be explained by the relatedness of colony members. In some insect species, workers share more genes with their siblings than with their own hypothetical offspring.

But Hamilton’s position has become controversial, partly because of termites who aren’t so closely related to their siblings, but practice eusociality nonetheless. The cooperation described in the PNAS paper is especially striking: The colonies weren’t related to one another at all, yet came together like family. Fist tap Dale.