People are social animals. Although we spend time alone, we also crave company and engage in a variety of activities to fulfil that need.
What drives our need for social life and the shapes it takes? Is our way of life inherited? Is it newly acquired in each generation? How do biological mechanisms contribute to our understanding of social life and social patterns?
These are the key questions the Levine Lab is exploring, and we’re doing so by studying the common fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
Why the fly?
Much of what we know about human biology and behaviour is first discovered as we study insects and other animals. Even though flies don’t look anything like us, there is a surprising correspondence between many of our genetic mechanisms. For example, we have common genes and biochemical pathways that make up learning and biological clocks and contribute to neurodegenerative disorders. In fact, 67 to 72% of known human disease genes can be found in the fly.
Historically, a number of genetic discoveries made in the fly have translated to humans with great benefit, including a great deal of information about the nervous system. Conveniently, flies also have short life spans, so we can observe patterns in a number of generations in a short span of time.
Using the fly as our template, our lab is exploring how biology contributes to the social choices we make, the quality of our relationships with others and the patterns of relationships that make up our social life. Our work has already begun to show that as diversity increases within a group, the range of experience also increases – important knowledge for our increasingly global society.
Our research suggests that the composition of the group and members’ past experiences affects the learning and teamwork that occur. If we can gain insights into the way social relationships are structured, we may begin to understand social issues such as group violence, autism and schizophrenia and think about creating more effective solutions and treatments.