The major evolutionary transitions in individuality

Stuart West, Roberta Fisher, Andy Gardner, Erica Kiers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

239 Citations (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


The evolution of life on earth has been driven by a small number of major evolutionary transitions. These have been characterized by individuals that could previously replicate independently, cooperating to form a new, more complex life form. For example, archaea and eubacteria formed eukaryotic cells, and cells formed multicellular organisms. But not all cooperative groups are on route to
major transitions. How can we explain why major evolutionary transitions have or haven't taken place on different branches of the tree of life? We break down major transitions into two steps, the formation of a cooperative group and the transformation of that group into an integrated entity. We show how these steps
require cooperation, division of labour, communication, mutual dependence and negligible within group conflict. We find that certain ecological conditions and the ways in which groups form have played recurrent roles in driving multiple transitions. In contrast, we find that other factors have played relatively minor
roles at many key points, such as within-group kin discrimination and mechanisms to actively repress competition. More generally, by identifying the small number of factors that have driven major transitions, we provide a simpler and more unified description of how life on earth has evolved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10112-10119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
Early online date11 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • Cooperation
  • Altriusm
  • Signalling
  • Division of labour
  • Conflict


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