Social Systems vs. Individual Fitness: The Queen/Worker Relationship

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  • 0:06 Fitness
  • 2:11 Social Systems vs.…
  • 3:20 The Queen/Worker Relationship
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Weber

Danielle teaches high school science and has an master's degree in science education.

The queen bee rules her hive while others take care of her needs. This form of behavior may seem odd, but it can be explained by looking into social systems and fitness.


In the previous lesson, we talked about the costs and benefits of living in social groups, as well as altruism and kin selection. Remember that a social group is a group of individuals of the same species cooperatively living together. Within that group, there may be certain behaviors that help increase survival of individuals, as well as of the group. Altruism is a behavior that benefits the recipient at a cost to the performer. This will come into play in this lesson in which we will look at social systems versus individual fitness and, specifically, at the queen/worker relationship.


Generally, when you say that someone is fit, you mean that he works out, looks good and takes care of his health. However, biological fitness refers to an animal's reproductive success, or how many healthy, living offspring an individual can have. There are two main types of fitness: individual fitness and inclusive fitness. Individual fitness, like it sounds, just pertains to one individual. Individual fitness is more likely to be found in organisms - especially those that live alone - and may even be viewed as selfish in some cases. On the other hand, inclusive fitness involves the fitness of others - that is, it takes into consideration cooperation and altruistic behaviors because it also includes the ability of related individuals to pass on their genes, which are the same or similar. This is likely to be found in social groups.

Let's look at examples of both forms of fitness in order to differentiate them a bit. Peggy is out on a boat with her friends and relatives. Unfortunately, the boat starts to sink. In individual fitness, Peggy will not care what happens to her friends and relatives but rather just save herself from the sinking boat. However, in inclusive fitness, Peggy will try to save her closest relatives first, as their potential success in life will help her genes to be passed on. While her friends may also need help, biologically, Peggy will not care what happens to them.

Florida Scrub Jays practice inclusive fitness
Florida Scrub Jays Practice Inclusive Fitness

Social Systems versus Individual Fitness

Before we, specifically, look at the queen/worker relationship, let's look at some aspects of social systems versus individual fitness.

One species of bird that exhibits a social system in which individuals sacrifice their individual fitness for inclusive fitness is the Florida Scrub Jay. There are some individuals who mate successfully and produce offspring. However, there are other individuals within the community that do not mate. Rather than mating and producing their own offspring, these birds help protect the nests and raise the young of others. By giving away their individual fitness, these birds help increase the inclusive fitness of the entire population.

Another example of this trade-off can be seen in most apes. Instead of focusing on breeding, let's look at survival. If one individual within a group of apes senses a predator or other immediate danger, she will make a loud noise to warn the other members of her society. While this action may cause attention to be drawn to the individual making the noise, the overall, inclusive fitness of the population is increased by this warning.

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