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Tempos and modes of collectivity in the history of life


Collective integration and processing of information have increased through the history of life, through both the formation of aggregates in which the entities may have very different properties and which jointly coarse-grained environmental variables (ranging from widely varying metabolism in microbial consortia to the ecological diversity of species on reefs) and through collectives of similar entities (such as cells within an organism or social groups). Such increases have been implicated in significant transitions in the history of life, including aspects of the origin of life, the generation of pangenomes among microbes and microbial communities such as stromatolites, multicellularity and social insects. This contribution provides a preliminary overview of the dominant modes of collective information processing in the history of life, their phylogenetic distribution and extent of convergence, and the effects of new modes for integrating and acting upon information on the tempo of evolutionary change.

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I appreciate the opportunity extended by the organizers to participate in the Santa Fe Institute working group meeting on collective computation (B. Daniels, J. Flack and M. Laubichler) and to contribute to this special issue. The discussions among the participants in the meeting also greatly influenced the resulting paper. I was supported by NASA through National Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA13AA90A) to the MIT node.

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Correspondence to Douglas H. Erwin.

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This article is part of the Special Issue on Quantifying Collectivity.

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Erwin, D.H. Tempos and modes of collectivity in the history of life. Theory Biosci. 140, 343–351 (2021).

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  • Evolutionary novelty
  • Major evolutionary transitions
  • Pangenome
  • Convergence