Adaptation in the face of internal conflict: the paradox of the organism revisited

M. M. Patten, M. A. Schenkel and J. A. Ågren,  Biological Reviews,  2023.

The paradox of the organism refers to the observation that organisms appear to function as coherent purposeful entities, despite the potential for within-organismal components like selfish genetic elements and cancer cells to erode them from within. While it is commonly accepted that organisms may pursue fitness maximisation and can be thought to hold particular agendas, there is a growing recognition that genes and cells do so as well. This can lead to evolutionary conflicts between an organism and the parts that reside within it. Here, we revisit the paradox of the organism. We first outline its conception and relationship to debates about adaptation in evolutionary biology. Second, we review the ways selfish elements may exploit organisms, and the extent to which this threatens organismal integrity. To this end, we introduce a novel classification scheme that distinguishes between selfish elements that seek to distort transmission versus those that seek to distort phenotypic traits. Our classification scheme also highlights how some selfish elements elude a multi-level selection decomposition using the Price equation. Third, we discuss how the organism can retain its status as the primary fitness-maximising agent in the face of selfish elements. The success of selfish elements is often constrained by their strategy and further limited by a combination of fitness alignment and enforcement mechanisms controlled by the organism. Finally, we argue for the need for quantitative measures of both internal conflicts and organismality.

More related to this: