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Unit information: Social Evolution: Genes to Societies in 2021/22

Unit name Social Evolution: Genes to Societies
Unit code BIOL30003
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Andy Radford
Open unit status Not open

None, but we strongly advise that students should previously have studied BIOL20104 Behavioural Ecology (L2) and BIOL20103 Acquisition of Behaviour (L2). If you have not taken these units, please consult the Unit Director for suggested background reading.



School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences

Description including Unit Aims

Sociality pervades all aspects of biological existence, from genes to human civilisations. For example, genes aggregate into genomes, cells into multicellular organisms, and insects into colonies. At each level in the hierarchy of biological organisation, these changes represent a major transition in evolution, whereby a new level of 'individuality' emerges, and the behaviours of group members changes as they become increasingly committed to specific phenotypic roles. Recently, there have been important theoretical and empirical advances in our understanding of the proximate (mechanistic) and ultimate (evolutionary) processes underlying sociality, and the extent to which there is a common evolutionary and mechanistic framework that explains sociality across the hierarchy of biological organisation.

The primary aim of the course is to explain the unified theory of social evolution that applies from genes to civilisations. This theory can be use to underpin the key phases in the transition to social living. Broadly, these are: (a) social group formation, including the costs and benefits of giving up independence to live in a group; (b) social group maintenance, including the processes that limit exploitation and conflict within and between groups; and (c) transition to complex sociality, including the shift from individual-level organisation to self-organisation. The concept of increasing levels of commitment to specific roles by individual group members will be explored, through these different stages.

The secondary aim is to explore the mechanistic basis of social evolution, with specific emphasis on how the genome accommodates the evolution of this higher-level individuality. Whilst our functional understanding of sociality is well developed, it is only in recent years that we have been able to make substantive progress in understanding the mechanistic basis to sociality. Here, we will draw on the recent sociogenomics literature that seeks to explain sociality in molecular terms. Using examples from across the hierarchy of biological organisation, we will determine to what extent social behaviour is underlain by the same conserved molecular processes and the emerging role of genomic novelty in social evolution and behaviour. This gene-level approach can help us attain an integrated understanding of sociality, across levels of biological organisation, through integrated interrogation of proximate and ultimate questions.

Intended Learning Outcomes

Students who have completed this course will have:

  • A deep understanding and appreciation of the evolutionary theory underlying social evolution.
  • An appreciation of how the same theory can explain sociality across all levels of biological organisation.
  • Knowledge of the molecular basis of social behaviour, and the relative role of conserved genes and genetic novelty in this.
  • An appreciation of how genomics helps exploit the combined power of ultimate and proximate approaches, to achieve a more complete understanding of social behaviour and evolution.

Teaching Information

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; and independent study.

Assessment Information

Summative written assessment, with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.


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How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.