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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The coevolution of cooperation and dispersal in social groups and its implications for the emergence of multicellularity

Michael E Hochberg123*, Daniel J Rankin4 and Michael Taborsky4

Author Affiliations

1 Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UMR 5554, Université Montpellier II, 34095 Montpellier, France

2 Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA

3 National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 435 State Street, Suite 300, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-3351, USA

4 Department of Behavioural Ecology, University of Bern, Wohlenstr. 50a, 3032 Hinterkappelen, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:238  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-238

Published: 19 August 2008

Abstract

Background

Recent work on the complexity of life highlights the roles played by evolutionary forces at different levels of individuality. One of the central puzzles in explaining transitions in individuality for entities ranging from complex cells, to multicellular organisms and societies, is how different autonomous units relinquish control over their functions to others in the group. In addition to the necessity of reducing conflict over effecting specialized tasks, differentiating groups must control the exploitation of the commons, or else be out-competed by more fit groups.

Results

We propose that two forms of conflict – access to resources within groups and representation in germ line – may be resolved in tandem through individual and group-level selective effects. Specifically, we employ an optimization model to show the conditions under which different within-group social behaviors (cooperators producing a public good or cheaters exploiting the public good) may be selected to disperse, thereby not affecting the commons and functioning as germ line. We find that partial or complete dispersal specialization of cheaters is a general outcome. The propensity for cheaters to disperse is highest with intermediate benefit:cost ratios of cooperative acts and with high relatedness. An examination of a range of real biological systems tends to support our theory, although additional study is required to provide robust tests.

Conclusion

We suggest that trait linkage between dispersal and cheating should be operative regardless of whether groups ever achieve higher levels of individuality, because individual selection will always tend to increase exploitation, and stronger group structure will tend to increase overall cooperation through kin selected benefits. Cheater specialization as dispersers offers simultaneous solutions to the evolution of cooperation in social groups and the origin of specialization of germ and soma in multicellular organisms.