William Hamilton, the originator of the idea of “inclusive fitness,” in which gene level selection (selfish genes) occurs, recalls the moment when he “had come to the realization that the genome wasn’t the monolithic data bank plus executive team devoted to one project-keeping oneself alive and having babies-that I had hitherto imagined it to be. Instead, it was beginning to seem more a company boardroom, a theatre for a power struggle of egotists and factions…I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire.”
On the other end of it, I have learned more about group selection from Thomas Seeley’s marvelous Honey Bee Democracy than any other book. In it he describes how a swarm of honey bees make the selection to find the most appropriate new nesting home. Scouts go out and come back and do their famous waggle dances to indicate where they had been; the enthusiasm with which they are performed accurately communicate the degree to which the site they had explored fit genetically hardwired specifications. Through many mechanisms that Seeley feels are similar to the functioning of brain neurons, the balance is tipped when a quorum of enthusiastic wagglers is reached and then everyone suddenly gets on the same page. The process is basically democratic in which everyone has the responsibility to express their opinion openly and honestly – up to a tipping point when a decision is made. He sticks to these principles in running his department at Cornell.
A vital distinction is to be made between Dr. Hamilton complaining about competition within his own genome and Dr. Seeley boasting about the cooperation among his bees, each of which are an expression (phenotype) of the genomes of the individual bees within a swarm. But is it possible that Dr. Seeey’s swarm of bees could achieve the level of coordination of the phenotype of a single genome like like Dr. Hamilton’s?
About 500 million years ago, individual cells made the transition from being several genomes into becoming a single genome, which then proceeded to evolve Dr. Hamilton’s “divided empire.” I would submit that it is possible that a sufficient alignment of the intentions of a swarm/group of separate genomes could achieve the status of an organism. This could be achieved by the transition of its collective phenotype into a modus of coordination (as in a business) as opposed to cooperation (as in a democracy.) It comes down to the degree of simultaneity of internal communication of the group’s (in most organisms – a group of cells and organs) intentions to “keep itself alive and have babies.” In eusocial insects, all communication is strictly local from one individual to the ones immediately surrounding it. Of course, in organisms with a single genome, simultaneous coordination is conducted by a brain (granting that the brain itself as Seeley implies may make decisions like an ultra souped-up democracy.)
Small groups of early Hominids transformed into organisms by virtue of the innovation of language in which everyone began simultaneously signaling everyone else in order to fathom, minute by minute, the intentions of their groups. In order to visualize structure of language, look at the back of a one dollar bill. On the left, you will see a pyramid with an eye at the apex. This image is surrounded by the words, Annuit Coeptis meaning, “He approves (or has approved) [our] undertakings”, and Novus Ordo Seculorum, meaning “New Order of the Ages.”