Charlie Cornwallis

PhD University of Oxford, Lund University Natural sciences Year of admission: 2013

Why do we form societies?
Evolutionary theory has a hard time explaining the development of societies where individuals sacrifice themselves for the good of others. Charlie Cornwallis will explore various explanations as to how this form of unselfish behavior can arise and why societies sometimes break down.

Life on Earth has undergone major evolutionary transitions approximately eight times in its history, resulting in life forms that have a higher level of cooperation. For example, single-cell organisms became multicellular, and multicellular organisms eventually formed complex societies where individuals even give up their own reproduction for collective survival. Such sacrifices are truly opposite to the basic ideas of evolutionary theory, where natural selection benefits those individuals who produce the greatest number of offspring. Understanding how complex social cooperation evolved is a great challenge for biology.

As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Charlie Cornwallis, an assistant professor at Lund University, will investigate various hypothesizes as to why vertebrates become involved in advanced forms of cooperation, and how complex societies sometimes break down. He will study a variety of species, from naked mole rats and white-winged choughs to sage grouse and humans. Furthermore, he will examine in greater detail the highly variable social structure of ostriches, which ranges from solitary individuals to complex cooperative groups, at a research station in the Western Cape Province of South Africa where there is a population of over 1 000 individuals.