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The Evolution of the Social Insects and the Metaphysics of Individuals

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Charles Darwin thought the evolution of the social insects was potentially fatal for his theory as individual worker bees and ants die without progeny in order to make it more likely for their colony to survive.

Since Darwin, two theories have been put forward to explain the evolution of social insects. On the theory of queen-mediated castration, the queen starves some of her daughters so they don’t develop gonads and instead care for other offspring. The behavior of creating sterile daughters is selected for.

On the theory of inclusive fitness developed by Hamilton the gene for caring for offspring in workers leads to greater fitness for the gene, as it is passed on in greater numbers by the nieces of the workers. This is the basis of the “selfish gene” theory popularized by Dawkins. If there were a gene that caused us to have a lot of children but then suffer torments in old age it would tend to get passed on although it would be a rotten deal for the creatures carrying that gene.

What I wonder though is whether there is a fact of the matter as to which of these theories is true. What conceivable experiment could tell you whether to take the queen’s eye view or the gene’s eye view?

And if there is no fact of the matter about which of them is true, does that mean that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not each of us is an individual?

But if that’s true why does it seem like we are?

And to whom does it seem like we are, if not to us?

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One thought on “The Evolution of the Social Insects and the Metaphysics of Individuals

  1. What I wonder though is whether there is a fact of the matter as to which of these theories is true. What conceivable experiment could tell you whether to take the queen’s eye view or the gene’s eye view?

    I don’t understand the question – possibly in a way you could attribute as nihilist of me (oh no, not the N word!). Are you attributing the queen as being behaviourally diverse, much like ourselves? Otherwise while insects do adapt behaviour somewhat (if they lose a leg they run in circles – but eventually go straight again), there isn’t much – so I’d say the queens view and the genes ‘view’ really aren’t terribly different. So I don’t understand it as a question.

    Sorry to hear of the passing of your pack member (I’m sure as dogs tend to think of themselves as that…and to a degree we think of ourselves as part of their pack). I’m sure she had a rich life and good social ties with you all, so that’s good.

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