SC12 Animal Social Dynamics, an Evolutionary Perspective


The course will begin by explaining the evolutionary and behavioural ecological perspectives on animal sociality. We’ll briefly explore some different types of vertebrate and invertebrate societies, and note ecological conditions under which they evolve. The material will hopefully appeal to the tropical biologist or entomologist hidden inside of you. We will also think how individual and social selection act on social groups. The topic is central to understanding how social behaviour is studied, and so frames most of what I say. A particular interest of mine is the role self-organizational processes play in social organization and thus social evolution, so we will spend some time on that. I think it adds something useful to the social evolution debate.

In the second part, we’ll discuss the organization of more complex animal societies, including collective decision making, self-organization and social networks. This section will focus primarily on the social insects, because they are such beautiful examples of behavioural coordination…and also because I work on them. We will look at how collective decisions for “best” choices are made by ants and bees, and consider when a group or an individual is better at decision making. We’ll also look at the emergence of division of labour in simple versus complex societies. Finally, we will examine social networks from a human versus insect perspective. If this all sounds like too much information, do not worry. I promise to show a lot of movies and nice pictures. The questions addressed are:

1. What kinds of animal societies are there; what do they do together, where and why?
2. How does natural selection shape social evolution, and what exactly are individual, social, and multilevel selection? (A question I may not be able to completely answer)
3. What are social dynamics, and how do they complicate social evolution?
4. How does social complexity apply to an ape versus to an ant?
5. How do social insect societies organize (almost) everything so well?
6. What are social networks, and do ants have them?


The major learning objectives of the course are:

(1) To see how the question of social behaviour is approached from the perspective of a behavioural (evolutionary) ecologist

(2) To consider the simple logic and behavioural rules that allow a behavioural ecologist (my field) to intersect with models of collective behaviour (which could be your field)

(3) To model how an empiricist sets about testing their models of social organization.



Course location


Course requirements


Instructor information.

Instructor's name

Jennifer Fewell


cf. website


Jennifer Fewell is President’s Professor at Arizona State University. She serves as Leader for the Organismal, Integrative and Systems Biology Faculty in the School of Life Sciences. She also led the effort to build the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity at ASU, and served as its founding director from. The center brings together biological, social and mathematical scientists to examine issues of social complexity.

Her primary areas of research interest are: the biology of the social insects; the organization of division of labor in social groups; social dynamics and the evolution of cooperation; social scaling in insect societies. She has written multiple papers on these topics. With Juergen Gadau, she co-edited the volume, “Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity”. She is currently a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, where she is writing a volume on “Division of Labor: The Organization of Work in Animal Societies”, and co-editing a volume on “Lying: The Making of the World”.