How and why are humans like social insects?

The projectIn this study, evolutionary biologist Dr. Bernard Crespi investigated social convergences of humans and social insects using a method pioneered by Darwin himself: the comparative method.  This method involves recognizing and analyzing similarities between groups of organisms that are phylogenetically distant, and have thus evolved the same or similar traits independently and convergently.

The discovery – This body of work provides novel evidence for social convergences of humans with social insects such as ants, bees and wasps, which provide new insights into how social cooperation, and competition, have evolved. In this paper, Dr. Crespi describes how humans and social insects have both evolved highly developed divisions of labour that increase economic efficiencies with regard to resource production and ecological success.

The similarities of social insects with humans in their natural, ancestral environments are, however, much more extensive than this, encompassing for example: (1) uniquely-identified cooperative groups, (2) foraging from a central place, (3) extensive food sharing, (4) diversified and high quality foodstuffs, (5) care of juveniles by non-mothers, (6) evolved increases in reproductive rates relative to ancestral forms, (7) collective and cooperative decision-making, (8) the group itself becoming a key resource, and (9) forms of 'moral' behaviour that tend to equalize reproductive opportunities. In contrast to social insects, however, human divisions of labour can be competitive as well as cooperative, which can lead to economic, social and reproductive inequalities, with divisive impacts on the harmony of relationships within and between groups. 

Its significance – The convergent similarities of humans with social insects are significant because they inform us about the selective pressures that have led to modern human sociality. In doing so, they help us to understand the environments and circumstances that best foster human cooperation in contrast to competition. Such fostering of cooperation has become increasingly important in the contexts of competition between humans, at scales from small communities to nations and states. As such, we can learn from Darwin, and the social insects, about how best to get along.

Read the paper“The convergent and divergent evolution of social-behavioral economics” by Bernard J. Crespi. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:e96 (2016). DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X15001028

Website article compiled by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos