[Illinois] Cooperation and Construction: From Multicellularity to Eusociality

By Corina Tarnita

Princeton University

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The evolutionary trajectory of life on earth is one of increasing size and complexity. Yet the standard equations of evolutionary dynamics describe mutation and selection among similar organisms that compete on the same level of organization. I will try to outline a mathematical theory that might help to explore how evolution can be constructive. I will distinguish two fundamental operations -- staying together (individuals form larger units by not separating after reproduction) and coming together (individuals form aggregates). Both operations have been identified in the context of multicellularity, but they can be found at every level of biological construction. They face different evolutionary problems, particularly clear in the context of cooperation and defection -- for staying together the stability of cooperation takes the form of a developmental error threshold, while coming together leads to evolutionary games and requires a mechanism for the evolution of cooperation.


Corina joined the Princeton faculty in February 2013. Previously she was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows (2010-2012) and a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Martin Nowak's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University (2009-2010). She obtained her B.A.('06), M.A.('08) and PhD ('09) in Mathematics from Harvard University. Her work is centered around the emergence of complex behavior out of simple interactions and consequently her research interests range from the transition from single cells to multicellular organisms to the role of cooperation as a building block of evolutionary construction and to the effects of spatial structure on the stability and persistence of populations and ecosystems.

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  • Corina Tarnita (2014), "[Illinois] Cooperation and Construction: From Multicellularity to Eusociality ," http://nanohub.org/resources/20932.

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