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Comparative Study
, 104 (23), 9736-40

The Emergence of a Superorganism Through Intergroup Competition

Comparative Study

The Emergence of a Superorganism Through Intergroup Competition

H Kern Reeve et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.


Surveys of insect societies have revealed four key, recurring organizational trends: (i) The most elaborated cooperation occurs in groups of relatives. (ii) Cooperation is typically more elaborate in species with large colony sizes than in species with small colony sizes, the latter exhibiting greater internal reproductive conflict and lesser morphological and behavioral specialization. (iii) Within a species, per capita brood output typically declines as colony size increases. (iv). The ecological factors of resource patchiness and intergroup competition are associated with the most elaborated cooperation. Predictions of all four patterns emerge elegantly from a game-theoretic model in which within-group tug-of-wars are nested within a between-group tug-of-war. In this individual selection model, individuals are faced with the problem of how to partition their energy between investment in intercolony competition versus investment in intracolony competition, i.e., internal tugs-of-war over shares of the resources gained through intergroup competition. An individual's evolutionarily stable investment in between-group competition (i.e., within-group cooperation) versus within-group competition is shown to increase as within-group relatedness increases, to decrease as group size increases (for a fixed number of competing groups), to increase as the number of competing groups in a patch increases, and to decrease as between-group relatedness increases. Moreover, if increasing patch richness increases both the number of individuals within a group and the number of competing groups, greater overall cooperation within larger groups will be observed. The model presents a simple way of determining quantitatively how intergroup conflict will propel a society forward along a "superorganism continuum."

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
The nested tug-of-war. Individuals engage in a selfish tug-of-war over resource shares within groups, and, simultaneously, groups engage in a tug-of-war with each other. The within-group tug-of-war reduces a group's ability to win the between-group tug-of-war.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Fractional investment in group competitiveness. (Upper) Individual's evolutionarily stable investment in group competitiveness (equals the degree of superorganismness) as a function of between group relatedness (r′) and within-group relatedness (r) (n = 100; n = 4; z = w). (Lower) Individual's evolutionarily stable investment in group competitiveness as a function of group size (n) and number of competing groups (N) (r′ = 0; r = 1/2; z = w).

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