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Keywords:

  • formal Darwinism;
  • group as maximizing agent;
  • group selection;
  • inclusive fitness;
  • individuality;
  • kin selection;
  • levels of selection;
  • major transitions;
  • natural selection;
  • Price equation

Abstract

Adaptation is conventionally regarded as occurring at the level of the individual organism. However, in recent years there has been a revival of interest in the possibility for group adaptations and superorganisms. Here, we provide the first formal theory of group adaptation. In particular: (1) we clarify the distinction between group selection and group adaptation, framing the former in terms of gene frequency change and the latter in terms of optimization; (2) we capture the superorganism in the form of a ‘group as maximizing agent’ analogy that links an optimization program to a model of a group-structured population; (3) we demonstrate that between-group selection can lead to group adaptation, but only in rather special circumstances; (4) we provide formal support for the view that between-group selection is the best definition for ‘group selection’; and (5) we reveal that mechanisms of conflict resolution such as policing cannot be regarded as group adaptations.