Beyond society: the evolution of organismality

David C. Queller, Joan E. Strassmann

Abstract

The evolution of organismality is a social process. All organisms originated from groups of simpler units that now show high cooperation among the parts and are nearly free of conflicts. We suggest that this near-unanimous cooperation be taken as the defining trait of organisms. Consistency then requires that we accept some unconventional organisms, including some social insect colonies, some microbial groups and viruses, a few sexual partnerships and a number of mutualistic associations. Whether we call these organisms or not, a major task is to explain such cooperative entities, and our survey suggests that many of the traits commonly used to define organisms are not essential. These non-essential traits include physical contiguity, indivisibility, clonality or high relatedness, development from a single cell, short-term and long-term genetic cotransmission, germ–soma separation and membership in the same species.

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