In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Eusociality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions
  • Levels
  • Phylogenetic Distribution and Evolutionary History of Eusociality
  • Evolutionary Routes
  • Selective Benefits
  • The Behavioral Basis
  • Scenarios

Evolutionary Biology Eusociality
Timothy A. Linksvayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0032


The evolution of eusociality has long been described as an evolutionary puzzle because eusociality entails a reproductive division of labor whereby some group members reproduce and others do not. How could such apparent reproductive altruism evolve by natural selection? Kin selection provides an ultimate evolutionary mechanism by which a sterile worker caste can evolve, but it does not provide insight into the precise selective costs and benefits that can favor the evolution of such reproductive altruism. Researchers have modeled various potential benefits and, less frequently, have empirically studied the costs and benefits for specific species. Other research has focused on the proximate details for the expression of eusociality—for example, The Genetic Basis of traits involved in the evolution of eusociality. The evolution of eusociality is also considered to be one of the major transitions in evolution, along with the evolution of chromosomes, eukaryotes, and multicellular organisms. As such, understanding the mechanisms enabling the cooperation of group members and the coordination of functions within eusocial groups may have broader impacts on understanding other levels of biological organization. Finally, eusocial groups have been the focus of intense research into conflicts of interest among group members. While cooperation can evolve when individuals are related, individuals are usually not perfectly related (i.e., clones), so their evolutionary interests may not be completely aligned. The literature concerning the evolution of eusociality has featured several recurring debates, including how to define eusociality; the importance and overlap of kin selection theory, group selection (or multi-level selection) theory, and other theoretical frameworks; and a more subtle discussion about what levels of analysis provide the strongest insights into the evolution of eusociality.

General Overviews

There are a variety of sources providing general overviews to the evolution of eusociality, although they often focus more or less on a particular taxon. Wilson 1971 provides a classic introduction to social evolution in the social insects and Andersson 1984 provides a classic review of the evolution of eusociality. Alexander, et al. 1991 provides a fairly comprehensive overview of issues in the evolution of eusociality in both insects and vertebrates. Choe and Crespi 1997 is an edited volume that very broadly discusses a range of issues that affect the evolution of sociality across insect and arachnid lineages. Thorne 1997 focuses on the evolution of eusociality in termites. Linksvayer and Wade 2005 discusses issues relating to the evolution of eusociality in aculeate hymenopterans, in particular focusing on The Genetic Basis of eusociality. Bourke and Franks 1995 provides a comprehensive discussion of issues relating to the evolution of eusociality, in particular focusing on the ants. Gadagkar 2001 provides more focused overviews of social evolution theory and empirical work in Ropalidia paper wasps.

  • Alexander, R. D., K. M. Noonan, and B. J. Crespi. 1991. The evolution of eusociality. In The biology of the naked mole-rat. Edited by P. W. Sherman, J. U. Jarvis, and R. D. Alexander. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Broad overview of issues in the evolution of eusociality in insects and vertebrates, including the evolution of eusociality from subsociality, the distribution of subsociality and eusociality, and life-history traits and preadaptations associated with eusociality.

  • Andersson, M. 1984. The evolution of eusociality. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 15:165–189.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.15.1.165

    A classic review of the evolution of eusociality that provides a nice overview of factors long considered to underlie eusocial evolution. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Bourke, A. F. G., and N. R. Franks. 1995. Social evolution in ants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides a very thorough and unbiased review of all of the conceptual issues related to the evolution of eusociality, with particular focus on the ants.

  • Choe, J. C., and B. J. Crespi, eds. 1997. The evolution of social behavior in insects and arachnids. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This multiauthored volume provides an excellent collection of chapters on a range of topics covering social evolution across insects and arachnids, including lineages that are not considered to be eusocial.

  • Gadagkar, R. 2001. The social biology of Ropalidia marginata: Toward understanding the evolution of eusociality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Summarizes years of careful empirical and theoretical work focused on understanding social evolution in the paper wasp genus Ropalidia.

  • Linksvayer, T. A., and M. J. Wade. 2005. The evolutionary origin and elaboration of sociality in the aculeate Hymenoptera: maternal effects, sib-social effects, and heterochrony. Quarterly Review of Biology 80.3: 317–336.

    DOI: 10.1086/432266

    Seeks to broadly review the evolution of eusociality in the aculeate Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), particularly by using an evolutionary genetic perspective. This review is more technical. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Thorne, B. L. 1997. Evolution of eusociality in termites. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 28:27–54.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.28.1.27

    A broad overview of issues relating to the evolution of eusociality in termites. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Wilson, Edward O. 1971. The insect societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The classic overview of all aspects of the social insects, including social evolution.

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