Rice University evolutionary biologists David Queller and Joan Strassmann argue in a new paper that high cooperation and low conflict between components, from the genetic level on up, give a living thing its "organismality," whether that thing is an animal, a plant, a bacteria or a colony.
Some of the traits scientists use to describe an organism, such as individuality or even membership in the same species, may not be necessary to achieve organismality. What is necessary, they argue, is a commonality of interests and minimal conflict that when combined, makes this the premier level of adaptation.
Queller and Strassmann, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professors of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, address what they call "the truly central questions about the organization of life" in "Beyond Society: The Evolution of Organismality," published this month in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society Biological Sciences.
"This is more than a semantic game of deciding that X is an organism and Y is not," they wrote. "The scientific community could choose any name they want for entities with extensive cooperation and very little conflict, but the existence of such entities is one of the striking features of life, and explaining how they evolve should therefore be an important task."
The ideas they present have been bubbling just below the surface of their extensive research into the conflicts and cooperation that drive Dictyostelium amoebas (slime molds) and social insects.
"Adaptation is what makes living things different from nonliving things, to my mind, so the concept of organism is centered on that," Queller said. A colony of honeybees is an organism, the authors argue, because of its sense of shared purpose. A high degree of cooperation and low level of conflict even when the potential for conflict is there is a primary trait of an organism, whether its components share a body or not.'/>"/>
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