FRIDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2011
A common thread unifies the casual David Attenborough viewer with the more eager zoology undergraduate. Whilst wading through the empirics of life on earth—whether with a BBC documentary or the Cambridge exam papers—a common question remains seemingly unanswered: what are the organizing, structural, social principles of life? Are the social and organizational principles that first led to organelles cooperating within a cell the same as those that are present in the creation of human societies?
In this regard, Andrew Bourke’s Principles of Social Evolution provides a much-needed synthesis. A sufficiently academic yet accessible text—its intro reads with the same intrigue of popular science, its subsequent sections with the flavour of a textbook—it brings together the vast literature on behavioural biology, while adding occasionally unique theoretical insight of its own.
Its thesis, put simply, is that common principles of social evolution apply at each step in the evolution of life and individuality, regardless of taxa or level of complexity. It attempts to unify the social elements of animal society and intracellular phenomenon under the same lens—an endeavour much neglected in ‘big’ biology textbooks.
Notably, Bourke seeks to place inclusive fitness theory at the centre of any analysis of social life, and of any study of the ‘major transitions’ in the history of life. He builds his work on the shoulders of Dawkins, Hamilton, Buss, Bonner and Maynard Smith, among others, yet—rather than defining the stages of social evolution, which some of these scientists (and many science books) have done—Bourke clarifies the dynamics of social group formation, maintenance, and eventual transformation.
The perennial difficulty, of course, lies in definition. Biology is fraught with debates about the formalisation of, say, taxa, period, or dynamic, and how these might obscure a nuanced understanding of life. Bourke’s book is not immune to this. He is, however, self-reflexive in this regard, and patently acknowledges and documents the questions that remain unresolved.
At the very least, Principles is a powerful and clear expression of the rationalist project in evolutionary biology: that all biological organization can be understood and its principles better elucidated. Bourke’s contribution, marrying the mathematical and empirical study of social evolution, is both novel and helpful in this regard. And one which is able to impress any who are inquisitive—from student to scientist to the scientifically curious.
Written by Taylor Burns