Monday, April 30, 2007

Insect colonies as prototypical dynamic entities

I can't get over how much I like David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone. (Click here for all my posts about this book.) I just finished a couple of chapters in which he talks about insect colonies as organisms. More generally, he talks about all organisms as groups of individuals, from bacteria on up. At the start of Chapter 21 he writes,
Individuals are not just members of groups but groups in their own right. We call them individuals because they have solved the problems of within-group conflict so well.
In my theory of entities (see "Putting Complex Systems to Work," especially sections 4 and 7), I talk about static and dynamic entities. Insect colonies are the prototypical dynamic entity. They depend on extracting energy from their environment to persist, and they consist of components that change over time even though the entity as a whole persists as an entity.

An interesting difference between insect colonies and dynamic entities in human societies is that in insect colonies the components — the individual insects — remain in a single colony all their lives. (This is not completely true. Some colonies divide when they get too big. But insects apparently don't participate in multiple groups simultaneously. At least they are serially group monogamous.) In human dynamic entities, the components (people) participate in multiple dynamic entities simultaneously. These include their family, social clubs, the companies they work for, teams responsible for projects they are working on, etc.

In "The Emergence of Cells During the Origin of Life," an award-winning essay published in Science last December, Irene Chen reports on an experiment that supports Wilson's perspective. In her experiment she demonstrates that RNA and cell membrane material, even though they are capable of replicating independently, are more successful when a membrane encapsulates the RNA than when they are separate. This could be the mechanism that led to the first cells.

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