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Old 05-30-2021, 05:48 PM   #31 (permalink)
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then in comes Elph with his rap style antics
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Old 05-30-2021, 06:04 PM   #32 (permalink)
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EO Wilson brings up how ants are programmed to leave the nest and die alone if they are injured, to no longer burden the colony with maintaining their existence. This is the exact opposite of what humans refer to as selfishness if you are breaking it down based on the best interest of the individual. It's clearly not in that individual ant's best interest. It's a sacrificial act that benefits the colony as a whole. You might say it benefits the specific genes the ant is carrying but then again, genes have no real agency and thus when we describe them as "selfish" it means something very different from the common parlance.
Selfishness is a term used perhaps a little peculiarly in biology, but you nail it with the bolded part. Because the unit of evolution is the gene (I would argue), to understand why the act of wandering away to die has evolved, you have to look at the genes and take their perspective.

To them, anything they can do to help their copies live on and proliferate into the future, even inside other ants, is beneficial.

You're right that they have no agency and so can't be said to actually be selfish or have any kind of motive, but it's still often a useful way to think of it or communicate the way they compete and evolve. For example, exploitative strategies will tend to evolve if given the chance. Actual selfishness that humans and other animals exhibit is rooted in the way natural selection works on genes.

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I have to say I'm not that clear on the distinction between monogamy and polygamy in ants. As far as I understand one queen typically lays all the eggs so are you saying that in the case of polygamous ants she is impregnated by multiple drones and lays eggs from each of them??? Or how does that work?
Yes. The classic way of reproduction was a queen flies off to bang a single male and the two of them would become the parents to a whole colony.

This, coupled with males having just one set of chromosomes as opposed to the usual two, is what makes getting a new sister have a higher related fitness benefit than having a baby.

For a gene inside a worker, the chances for that gene to be copied to that worker's offspring is only 50%. The chance for that gene to have a copy inside a new sister is 75%. Hence, genes inside workers should promote the proliferation of sisters rather than own offspring.

This logic breaks down under polygamy, because workers with different fathers will be less related to eachother and less than what they would be to their own offspring. So polygamy may cause workers having sex to become a competitive strategy again. You mention some cases where workers might wanna bang and I would guess that might be in polygamous colonies where it can be an indicator that eusociality is in the process of breaking down.
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Old 05-30-2021, 06:08 PM   #33 (permalink)
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Old 05-30-2021, 06:50 PM   #34 (permalink)
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So when an ant colony has infighting based on picking a new handmaid is that because each faction is loyal to the handmaid ant that shares more of their genes?
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Old 05-30-2021, 09:50 PM   #35 (permalink)
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Old 05-31-2021, 02:11 AM   #36 (permalink)
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Old 05-31-2021, 02:14 AM   #37 (permalink)
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So when an ant colony has infighting based on picking a new handmaid is that because each faction is loyal to the handmaid ant that shares more of their genes?
Yes, exactly. This is something that happens under certain conditions. If several queens found a colony together, the queens will fight after emergence of the first workers. Then, workers may also get involved in an early in-house war, killing or throwing out queens. This occasionally also happens in mature colonies with multiple queens.

So although ant hills may seem like superorganisms, current evolutionary understanding does predict that because they are actually made up of selfish interests working together, there would be conflicts of interest and special cases like above where eusociality might completely break down, at least for a while.

Because it's an interesting subject, I've done a little bit of reading on that subject. This article was pretty good and is co-authored among others by Bert Hölldobler who has also been a collaborator with Wilson, but who is not a proponent of group selection (group selection support seems fringe).

I don't expect people to want to wade through that like I have, but a few reasons in-colony conflicts may exist are described.

In a monogamous single-queen colony, queens are as related to her male babies as she is to her female (50%). However, workers are 75% related to sisters and only 25% related to brothers. This means that workers are incentivized to care/invest more in female offspring (sisters) than they are in males (brothers). As such, the workers may work against the queen and her male offspring, working to skew the sex ratio between males and females to 3/4 females and 1/4th males, mirroring their level of relatedness. This could possibly done by feeding male eggs to female larvae (not sure if that happens). Studies on sex-ratio seem to suggest it is close to 3 females for every male which suggests that workers are in control of this aspect of colonies. HOWEVER nature is messy and I'm sure deviates from this ratio are abundant. One thing a queen can do in order to stop workers messing with her man-babies is to mate with several males. If she does, the relatedness between sisters should drop and so should their incentive to "mistreat" males. Observation in Fornica truncorum colony with several queens showed a higher ratio of males, seeming to support this hypothesis.

Another source of conflict is origin of males as workers are often capable of laying male eggs. This has been mentioned earlier and may lead to workers policing that kind of activity in colonies where the queen is a polygamist. Also the queen is incentivized to inhibit worker reproduction. Slave-keeping ants also prevent their slaves from having male offspring (which would they would not be related to at all and so would care nothing about).

Another source of conflict seem to be in ant species where the shapes (morphology) of ants are more similar. The typical queen is ideally suited for egg-laying while a worker is not, so this would reinforce how a worker should rather spread her own genes by using the queen as her sexual proxy. However, if queens and workers are physically more similar and more alike in capabilities, that seems to increase the level of violent conflict.

A few other kinds of conflicts that may appear:
  • Queens fighting other queens
  • Queens begging food more often from workers with bigger ovaries (which may reproduce), thus keeping them from reproducing
  • In the genus Diacamma, morphologically distinct queens do not exist. Instead, a worker tries to monopolize reproduction by mutilating larvae after emergence so that new workers cannot sexually reproduce themselves.

I still have not yet read Wilson himself, but he is referenced in this paper saying that he believes some colonies to achieve superorganism status if the level of conflict/competition within a colony dies down enough. The authors of the paper conclude that calling ant hills superorganism or suggest they may be a unit of evolution in itself is difficult as it would be hard to separate the levels at which selection occurs. They write somewhat diplomatically (to my mind) that the concept is a useful heuristic device.

To my mind, a problem with group selection arguments are that they don't explain the evolution of conflicts and related behaviours like mentioned above. It leads to misunderstandings, making people ignorant of the constant presence of conflict, exploitation and competition that exists inside populations. Animals don't do things for the good of the colony/populations, but for themselves (or rather their genes). The predictions that arise from this fits observations beautifully. I also don't (yet) know what mechanisms are suggested for group selection, so there's that.

jwb, although you may be on Wilson's team in this (?), I implore you to pick up and read The Selfish Gene Although it is quite old (its 50th anniversary will come up in a couple of years), it is still relevant and I'm relatively sure it will blow your mind in a good way. It is just a genius piece of work and my favorite bit of scientific litterature. In terms of understanding evolution, it was a big eye-opener, more so than any uni lectures I can remember.
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Old 05-31-2021, 02:43 AM   #38 (permalink)
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Now this may BORE you, but I just wanted to quickly mention a concept in evolutionary theory which may also help understand how populations (even anthills) work and evolve.

The concept is evolutionary stable states. I believe the example in The Selfish Gene is birds grooming eachother, so we can use that. Let's say a gene mutates in a population of birds, creating a new version of a gene that makes birds cooperate in grooming. There are places on the bird body that birds can't get to without help, so this grooming gene is very successful. If you could have a population where all birds groom eachother, that would actually increase the reproductive fitness for all, maximizing the reproductive output of the population.

From a group selection point of view, one might think that's a feasible scenario, that a gene could randomly appear and become and stay "fixed" (becoming the only variety of that gene) because it works in the population's interests. But this is not what happens.

What happens instead is that in an environment where more and more birds groom eachother, selfish birds will do increasingly well. After all, a completely selfish bird in a population of altruists would enjoy the grooming of everyone else while never having to spend resources reciprocating. As a result, this bird would have a higher fitness than the altruists and so its selfish genes would spread through the population, destroying any chance of the population reaching an optimal in terms of reproductive output.

Similarly, the cooperative version of the gene does better when the population has many selfishs in it. As a result, the most likely scenario is that the ratio of groomers and non-groomers would tend towards stabilization at a ratio where the fitness difference between the two strategies is minimized. So if cooperators become too many, selfishness will be the best strategy and natural selection pushes the ratio of unselfish individuals back down towards the stable ratio again. It might be 20% selfish individuals and 80% unselfish. Such a ratio is what is known as an evolutionary stable state.

These systems may continue to evolve measures and counter measures, such as animals perhaps trying to identify selfish individuals before grooming them and more advanced manipulation behaviours from the selfish individuals.
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Old 05-31-2021, 03:21 PM   #39 (permalink)
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I think it's interesting.

Also interesting that we knew so much about ants long before we even completely found out what a clitoris is.

I guess that's another point for the ants' matriarchal commune as long as you're okay with the ethnic cleansing.
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Lucem, you're right, it's silly to talk about what I would or wouldn't do IRL. Glad you brought it up. Maybe you should write an instrumental about it. I recommend a piano paired with a clarinet. With ambient sounds of you hanging from your shower curtain you ****ing failure.

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Old 05-31-2021, 08:01 PM   #40 (permalink)
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I don't know what the current favoured explanations are for supercolonies, but I would expect that different colonies of ants working together might evolve if that is a better strategy than warring. We humans are great at this and ants could be too. However, I would not expect the bolded part (though it might be hyperbole and not to be taken exactly as written).

The reason is simple. Lets say you have a super colony consisting of 6 colonies with 6 queens. Let's say they all share food and all feed each others queens, take care of each others babies, etc. Let's arbitrarily say that in colony 4, the queen has a genetic mutation that makes her babies on average do less work on behalf of the other colonies that make up the supercolonies. Colony 4 would then have workers that are more focused on the wellbeing of colony 4 while simultaneously being cared for by the other colonies.

So basically, what you're proposing is not a situation I would think was stable, because it would be vulnerable to getting invaded by an exploitative strategy. Once such a strategy appeared, it would likely do better than the other strategies and potentially drive them to extinction. In the case above, colony 4 would probably have larger food stores, would produce more queens and they in turn would spread the exploitative mutation and outcompete the friendlier varieties.

Hence, though I might be wrong, I would expect the 6 colonies to cooperate in a more limited fashion. Although all colonies cooperate, there would be higher levels of cooperation inside each sub-colony.
I don't have time to respond to or even to properly ingest everything you've said thus far as I'm working on very limited time and energy, though I will definitely return to say more I would just quickly respond to this.

You should go on YouTube and look at bbc empire of the ants with Attenborough. It shows just such a super colony which he says has millions of queens. Sharing food and cooperating in farming aphids, etc. Maybe it's a more recent observation or maybe they're lying. But that'd definitely the impression they give.
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