Do Somatic Cells Really Sacrifice Themselves? Why an Appeal to Coercion May be a Helpful Strategy in Explaining the Evolution of Multicellularity

Biological Theory 16 (2):102-113 (2021)
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An understanding of the factors behind the evolution of multicellularity is one of today’s frontiers in evolutionary biology. This is because multicellular organisms are made of one subset of cells with the capacity to transmit genes to the next generation and another subset responsible for maintaining the functionality of the organism, but incapable of transmitting genes to the next generation. The question arises: why do somatic cells sacrifice their lives for the sake of germline cells? How is germ/soma separation maintained? One conventional answer refers to inclusive fitness theory, according to which somatic cells sacrifice themselves altruistically, because in so doing they enhance the transmission of their genes by virtue of their genetic relatedness to germline cells. In the present article we will argue that this explanation ignores the key role of policing mechanisms in maintaining the germ/soma divide. Based on the pervasiveness of the latter, we argue that the role of altruistic mechanisms in the evolution of multicellularity is limited and that our understanding of this evolution must be enriched through the consideration of coercion mechanisms.

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Author Profiles

Adrian Stencel
Jagiellonian University
Javier Suárez
Jagiellonian University

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