The origin and evolution of animal societies Essay

In this essay I will attempt to explain how animal societies came to exist, also how they have managed to be maintained and developed. I will do this by first explaining what a society is. I will go on to describe the many factors involved in being a society including its’ advantages and disadvantages. After this I hope to conclude the information in a short passage to illustrate the major points involved with this topic.

Definition of a society

E. O. Wilson describes social behaviour as a reciprocal communication of a cooperative nature (transcending mere sexual activity) that permits a group of organisms of the same species to become organised in a cooperative manner. (In a complex system of social interactions, individuals are highly dependant on others for their daily living). (E. O. Wilson Sociology: The new synthesis, 1975).

Therefore a society is a relationship between individuals of the same species that is mutually beneficial.

The basis of society

The basis of society seems to be for the purpose of sexual reproduction. Since it is required that social interaction must take place to achieve production of offspring in this way. However it is obvious that many species live in far more socially interactive societies than just merely for reproduction.

Ants and some other insects live in societies that are not just for reproduction, since nearly all of the members of their society are incapable of producing offspring. Therefore such organisms must gain other benefits from being in the society since the only way they would contribute to the production of a new generation, is by protecting their queen and finding food for her.

Advantages of a society

* Defence: societies provide “safety in numbers”, whereby you are protected by the sheer number of the society – it being enough to prevent attack from predators. Whether active or passive it is safer to face predators in a group than as an individual. Also a greater chance of survival is gained by existing in a larger group – as it is less likely that a certain individual will be the one killed by an attack.

* Sexual reproduction s easier as a society facilitates the interaction between the males and females of the species involved. Increasing the chance of a successful breeding.

* Hunting, many pack animals are only effective hunters due to their group attacks. A single attacker would have far less chance of a successful kill than the pack, although this does lead to less food but the higher success rate overcomes this, e.g. canines such as wolves.

* Organisation: the organised lifestyle of many insect societies is crucial to the survival of those organisms. Each type of insect in that society has a specific role, the final result is that the hive is built that can hold all of the organisms, that enough food is found for all of the members. The organisation provided by being in a society allows many things to be done that could not be done by single organisms.


* Some species survive by camouflage. Therefore they require a solitary lifestyle to increase the chances of not being found by predators. If these organisms were grouped together they would be far more obvious.

* Large predators such as the lion require a large area of territory to support the large amount of prey they require. Therefore it is more productive for the larger predators to remain in solitary lifestyles, (most of the time).

The origin of societies

Societies must therefore have formed for the purpose of survival. If organisms formed societies that increased their chance of survival then it would be more likely that they would pass on their genes to the next generation. The offspring would automatically be included in that society and so the genes would be passed on by them in the same way. However organisms of the same species that did not behave in this way and so maintained a solitary lifestyle would have a lower probability of survival. If they are more likely to die then it is more likely that their genes would not be passed on to a new generation. Eventually the non-society forming type may well die out, increasing the chance of the society forming types survival.

This is due to the decreased competition from the same species that are not in the society. The non-society type may eventually form a new species (divergent evolution) since their lifestyle is completely different from the others. Chance and environmental pressure would lead to changes in the genes of both types, but the changes would be different and so they would eventually become genetically different.

Evolution of existing societies

Once a society has formed it is likely that all organisms within that society

will undergo evolution that greater facilitates the role of their society. It can be assumed that ants originally did not have a single queen but lived in a colony that had a number of offspring producing females. Since the queen would be the product of evolutionary change within a society, as successful reproduction would be difficult for a species like this if it were not in the society. However this change would obviously be a very slow process, even though it would be speeded up by the isolation of those organisms from the others of their species. Isolation facilitates the process of evolution since even small changes in the genes have a greater chance of being passed on and spreading through the entire society (when the population is smaller).


A major factor in societies seems to be communication. Although not often particularly complicated, it is still found in most societies. A good example of communication is that of the common bees (honey). Where communication plays a vital part in everyday life. These bees communicate through a dance, this dance has been interpreted to give an amazing amount of information considering its’ simplicity. The dance tells other bees where that particular bee has been to find food (in the form of nectar from plants).

The other bees can then find that location with incredible accuracy. This type of communication is vital for the society to maintain its’ food supplies. Communication is also important for many societies in determining the most applicable mate. Such as with the primates, the loudest and most dominant male is considered the best mate. Since the males don’t often fight, the dominant male is the one that roars the loudest and puts on the most pleasing display (to the females). This communication is important as it stops the need for actual confrontation, which is not beneficial to any participants, as an injury could result.

Humans in societies

Humans belong to a very complicated society compared to that of most animals. However it is basically the same as any other, in that it is mutually beneficial for it’s members. Order in a human society is kept in a very different way to that of any other animal. Societies all follow a basic set of rules; individuals generally live up to these rules simply in their normal way of life. Due to the complexity of lifestyle that humans have brought about we require threats to maintain order. Our individuality within our society means that most people do what they feel is best for themselves with the needs of the society less important. Most rules in our society are based on our religion; even though there are many different versions of religion they are all a very simple method of control. Basically if you break the laws of your society you will face punishment from your god.

The result of this is that most people abide by the rules through the fear of that god. Even though no person may see you break a law it is assumed that are constantly watched and so cannot avoid punishment (usually you would face this punishment after death). It is obvious that control of the human society is very fragile; from the number of people that are willing to break the rules. Threats of imprisonment and so taking them away from society is the current method for maintaining order, although this has limited effect. A higher intelligence has resulted in a partial break down of human society, in that most members of our society in some way break the rules imposed on us. It is obvious that control of the human society is very fragile; from the number of people that are willing to break the rules.


So from this information it can be seen that societies are difficult things to maintain for many species, especially our own. However they are very important to our survival, as things can be accomplished by a society that would be nearly impossible for an individual. There are advantages to living in a society but also disadvantages, however the benefits mostly outweigh the shortcomings. The dominance of humans on Earth is due to the teamwork only possible because of the structure of our lives and how we live with others of the same species.


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