Royal Society Publishing

Self-assembly, self-organization and division of labour

Ana B. Sendova-Franks, Nigel R. Franks


The prospect of generic principles of biological organization being uncovered through the increasingly broad use of the concepts of ‘self–assembly’ and ‘self–organization’ in biology will only be fulfilled if students of different levels of biological organization use the same terms with the same meanings. We consider the different ways the terms ‘self–assembly’ and ‘self–organization’ have been used, from studies of molecules to studies of animal societies. By linking ‘self–assembly’ and ‘self–organization’ with division of labour, we not only put forward a distinction between the underlying concepts but we are also able to relate them to the question: Why has a certain structure been favoured by natural selection? Using the particularly instructive case of social resilience in ant colonies, we demonstrate that the principle of self–organizing self–assembly may apply to higher levels of biological organization than previously considered. We predict that at the level of interactions among organisms within the most advanced animal societies, specialization through learning has a crucial role to play in re–assembly processes. This review may also help important commonalities and differences to be recognized between ordering mechanisms up to the social level and those further up the biological hierarchy, at the level of ecological communities.

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