Towards a general theory of the major cooperative evolutionary transitions

Towards a general theory of the major cooperative evolutionary transitions
John E.Stewart

Volume 198, December 2020, 104237


Major Cooperative Evolutionary Transitions occur when smaller-scale entities cooperate together to give rise to larger-scale entities that evolve and adapt as coherent wholes. Key examples of cooperative transitions are the emergence of the complex eukaryote cell from communities of simpler cells, the transition from eukaryote cells to multicellular organisms, and the organization of humans into complex, modern societies. A number of attempts have been made to develop a general theory of the major cooperative transitions. This paper begins by critiquing key aspects of these previous attempts. Largely, these attempts comprise poorly-integrated collections of separate models that were each originally developed to explain particular transitions. In contrast, this paper sets out to identify processes that are common to all cooperative transitions. It develops an alternative theoretical framework known as Management Theory. This general framework suggests that all major cooperative transitions are the result of the emergence of powerful, evolvable ‘managers’ that derive benefit from using their power to organize smaller-scale entities into larger-scale cooperatives. Management Theory is a contribution to the development of a general, “all levels” understanding of major cooperative transitions that is capable of identifying those features that are level-specific, those that are common across levels and those that are involved in trends across levels.