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Unit information: Social Evolution: Genes to Societies in 2020/21

Unit name Social Evolution: Genes to Societies
Unit code BIOL30003
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Andy Radford
Open unit status Not open

None, but we strongly advise that students should previously have studied BIOL20104 Behavioural Ecology (L2) and BIOL20103 Acquisition of Behaviour (L2). If you have not taken these units, please consult the Unit Director for suggested background reading.



School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences


Sociality pervades all aspects of biological existence, from genes to human civilisations. For example, genes aggregate into genomes, cells into multicellular organisms, and insects into colonies. At each level in the hierarchy of biological organisation, these changes represent a major transition in evolution, whereby a new level of 'individuality' emerges, and the behaviours of group members changes as they become increasingly committed to specific phenotypic roles. Recently, there have been important theoretical and empirical advances in our understanding of the proximate (mechanistic) and ultimate (evolutionary) processes underlying sociality, and the extent to which there is a common evolutionary and mechanistic framework that explains sociality across the hierarchy of biological organisation.

The primary aim of the course is to explain the unified theory of social evolution that applies from genes to civilisations. This theory can be use to underpin the key phases in the transition to social living. Broadly, these are: (a) social group formation, including the costs and benefits of giving up independence to live in a group; (b) social group maintenance, including the processes that limit exploitation and conflict within and between groups; and (c) transition to complex sociality, including the shift from individual-level organisation to self-organisation. The concept of increasing levels of commitment to specific roles by individual group members will be explored, through these different stages.

The secondary aim is to explore the mechanistic basis of social evolution, with specific emphasis on how the genome accommodates the evolution of this higher-level individuality. Whilst our functional understanding of sociality is well developed, it is only in recent years that we have been able to make substantive progress in understanding the mechanistic basis to sociality. Here, we will draw on the recent sociogenomics literature that seeks to explain sociality in molecular terms. Using examples from across the hierarchy of biological organisation, we will determine to what extent social behaviour is underlain by the same conserved molecular processes and the emerging role of genomic novelty in social evolution and behaviour. This gene-level approach can help us attain an integrated understanding of sociality, across levels of biological organisation, through integrated interrogation of proximate and ultimate questions.

Intended learning outcomes

Students who have completed this course will have:

  • A deep understanding and appreciation of the evolutionary theory underlying social evolution.
  • An appreciation of how the same theory can explain sociality across all levels of biological organisation.
  • Knowledge of the molecular basis of social behaviour, and the relative role of conserved genes and genetic novelty in this.
  • An appreciation of how genomics helps exploit the combined power of ultimate and proximate approaches, to achieve a more complete understanding of social behaviour and evolution.

Teaching details

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; and independent study.

Assessment Details

Summative written assessment, with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.

Reading and References

Primary texts: e.g. Bourke AFG (2011) Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford University Press. Robinson GE, Grozinger CM, Whitfield CW (2005) Sociogenomics: social life in molecular terms. Nature Reviews Genetics, 6, 257–70. Keller L, ed. (1999) Levels of Selection in Evolution. In. Princeton University Press, Princeton Maynard Smith J, Szathmáry E (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution. W.H. Freeman, Oxford

Supplementary texts: e.g. Boomsma JJ (2009) Lifetime monogamy and the evolution of eusociality. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364, 3191–207. Enrico Coen (2013) Cells to Civilizations: The principles of change that shape life. Princeton University Press.