Evolution of multicellularity: cheating done right

Biology and Philosophy 34 (3):34 (2019)
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For decades Darwinian processes were framed in the form of the Lewontin conditions: reproduction, variation and differential reproductive success were taken to be sufficient and necessary. Since Buss and the work of Maynard Smith and Szathmary biologists were eager to explain the major transitions from individuals to groups forming new individuals subject to Darwinian mechanisms themselves. Explanations that seek to explain the emergence of a new level of selection, however, cannot employ properties that would already have to exist on that level for selection to take place. Recently, Hammerschmidt et al. provided a ‘bottom-up’ experiment corroborating much of the theoretical work Paul Rainey has done since 2003 on how cheats can play an important role in the emergence of new Darwinian individuals on a multicellular level. The aims of this paper are twofold. First, I argue for a conceptual shift in perspective from seeing cheats as a ‘problem’ that needs to be solved for multi-cellularity to evolve to the very ‘key’ for the evolution of multicellularity. Secondly, I illustrate the consequences of this shift for both theoretical and experimental work, arguing for a more prominent role of ecology and the multi-level selection framework within the debate then they currently occupy.

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Walter Veit
University of Bristol

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