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Courses in Complexity

CSDC Workshop on Multilevel Selection

March 19 – 20, 2008
At The Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, ASU
Arizona State University

View Gallery of Workshop

The CSDC is hosting a small workshop on multilevel selection intended to illuminate new avenues of study and to bring conceptual clarity to old debates. It is also intended to prepare the ground for a much larger conference on the same topic that we are planning for next year, to coincide with the publication of the new Hölldobler and Wilson volume.

Multi-level selection theory (MLS) has become a dominant theoretical extension of the principle of natural selection in explanations of complex phenotypes, such as altruistic behavior, and of major transitions in evolution, such as the origin of multicellularity and the formation of social groups. MLS assumes that natural selection acts on different levels (genes, individuals, and groups) and studies the consequences of various interactions between these selective forces. This approach has yielded important insights into the forces that have shaped complex phenotypes and the corresponding architectures and behaviors of these systems. Ideas, such as those of a conflict between different levels of organization (cell vs. organism or individual vs. group), have helped us understand the specific constraints and adaptations of complex dynamical systems.

The CSDC workshop on MLS will discuss recent theoretical and empirical advances in the field and evaluate several competing models of the evolution of eusociality that have recently been proposed. A second goal of the workshop is to define new avenues of research in MLS and to investigate the role of MLS for the larger problem of understanding the relationships between groups and individuals in a variety of complex adaptive social systems, the topic of a major upcoming conference at the CSDC.


Wednesday, March 19th:
Origins and Applications of MLS Theory

Morning Session (9-12): Conceptual Origins of MLS Theory
This session explores the conceptual and historical foundations of multilevel selection theory. The purpose of this session is to arrive at a consensus view on what MLS is, how it came about and what its major theoretical and empirical results and main challenges to MLS have been.

Organizing Questions for this session include:

What is MLS theory?
What conceptual and mathematical tools does MLS theory offer?
What reasons were given for resisting it?
What has changed such that MLS theory has become more widely accepted?
What does MLS theory explain?
What breakthroughs does MLS theory offer for thinking about evolution?

Goal: To write a historical-conceptual review paper expanding on the recent work of Wilson and Wilson (2007, QRB)

Afternoon Session (1-4): Applications for MLS Theory
This session asks after the current applications of MLS theory in order to arrive at a consensus on the possibilities and challenges of MLS theory.

Organizing Questions:

What systems has it been applied to?
What have we learned about evolution?
What have we learned about the relationship between groups and individuals/organisms?
What kinds of problems does it work for?
What kinds of problems does it not work for?

Goal: To write a scientific review of current applications of MLS theory emphasizing both successes and open questions.

Thursday March 20th:
Multilevel Selection and Complex Adaptive Systems

Morning Session (9-12): The Integration of MLS Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems

The purpose of this session is to bring together complementary perspectives from MLS theory and complex adaptive systems to address major questions such as:

What is the relationship between groups and individuals?
How do complex social groups originate and evolve?
By what mechanisms do dynamic interactions lead to group behavior?
By what mechanisms do group level phenotypes emerge?
What are general mechanisms of cohesion in complex social groups and how do they arise?

Goal: To prepare the groundwork for concrete research projects

Afternoon Breakouts: Research Projects in MLS and MLS Theory

This is to identify research projects on the intersection of MLS theory and complex adaptive systems theory in the context of the CSDC.

Goal: sketch projects and grant proposal outlines

Exogenous Attendees:

Sandra Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell is the Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Biological Complexity and Integrative Pluralism (Cambridge, 2003) as well as several articles on self-organization in insect societies, sociobiology, and the units of selection. Her research is wide ranging, but has focused on understanding and representing the behavior of complex systems. She is currently working on a book that is tentatively titled Life is Not So Simple.

Michael Wade

In addition to being Distinguished Professor at Indiana University, Dr. Wade has published widely on theoretical and experimental issues in evolution, with special attention to the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum) as a model system. Dr. Wade is the author or co-author of nearly a dozen highly cited papers on topics as diverse as genetic caste determination, evolutionary genetics, and epistasis. He also contributed importantly to theoretical and empirical discussions of group and kin selection.

David Sloan Wilson

Dr. Sloan Wilson is Professor in the Departments of Biological Sciences and in Anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He has worked with numerous organisms, focusing on natural selection as it operates from the level of the gene to the level of the ecosystem, on the evolution of altruism, and major transitions in evolution. In addition to being the author many highly-cited papers, he is author of Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Delacorte Press, 2007), Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (co-authored with Elliott Sober) (Harvard, 1998), and other books. Dr. Sloan Wilson also maintains a Blog at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sloan-wilson/#blogger_bio.

ASU/CSDC Participants:

Bert Hölldobler

Jennifer Fewell

Jürgen Gadau

Jürgen Liebig

Manfred Laubichler

Andrew Hamilton

Kim Hill

William Griffin

Michael Barton

Steven Neuberg

Robert Page

John Pepper


Theorist Discussion (.pdf)

You may obtain the following literature upon request:

Wilson, D.S., & Wade, E.O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Review of Biology. 82 (4). 327-348.
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Strassmann, J. E., & Queller, D.C (2007). Insect societies as divided organisms: The complexities of purpose and cross-purpose. PNAS, 104 (supp.1). 8619-8626.
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Reeve, K.H., & Hoelldobler, B. (2007). The emergence of a superorganism through intergroup competition. PNAS, 104 (23). 9736-9740.
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