Survival strategies of living systems

Systems Biology



The hierarchy of survival strategies of living systems is better under stood from the point of view of systems biology. Survival strategies are stimulated by “internal will” of the living organism.



Every living being struggles to survive and offers resistance to disease and death. Living beings even smaller ones make surprising strategies of survival for example E. Coli turns its skin to hydrophobic from hydrophilic when put in a solution of 5% sodium chloride solution. Formation of societies is a complex survival strategy of the living systems and the group/ social behavior of insects to humans is indeed astonishing. Presumably these strategies start right from DNA molecules and up to societies of insects to human beings. Systems biology approach might reveal more facts hither to unknown about living systems as systems study is about the whole instead of the parts of the system. Systems theory tells us that system as a hole is more than the parts with which the system is made. Even a single free living cell is a complex system that contains many systems that work in tandem.


The self repairing/assembling and replication properties are the strategy of DNA molecule to survive at the level of genome. These properties are the basis of instincts self preservation and procreation at the organism level. Living organism on sensing threat to its existence goes in to fight or flight mode to preserve itself. Self preservation is the first instinct and procreation the second instinct is the other side of the same coin as after all, the organism is preserving the species by procreating.
Self preservation and procreation are analogous to behavioral traits selfishness and altruism. It is well known that some insects [ants, termites, bees, wasps] and mammals [naked mole rats and Damaraland mole rats] show eusociality. The study1 of wasp [Ropalidia marginata] society revealed that population in the R. marginata society is divided into three groups sitters, foragers and fighters based on their behavior. Fighters are like police and military of the wasp society to deal with internal and external disturbances while foragers are to collect food and fiber for nest construction and sitters are probably a reserve group or yet to be differentiated young or there may be a function yet to be identified. Interestingly the queen and the workers of R. marginata colony are similar morphologically [contrary to this the queen bee’s abdomen is noticeably longer than the worker bees surrounding her2] and the queen groups with the sitters. If the queen is removed from the colony one of the worker wasp develops her ovaries and becomes the queen. If the original queen is returned to the colony the new queen goes back to work voluntarily in fact altruistically that is without being challenged either by the workers or by the original queen. This is a beautiful demonstration of the self organization of R. marginata society.
While instinctual behavior appears mechanical and preprogrammed the social behavior may be influenced by the experience of the organism as well. Fixed Action Pattern [FAP] instinctual behavior3 is triggered by a stimulus and the sequence of actions run till completion once triggered. Egg rolling by Graylag Goose is a fixed action pattern behavior triggered when an egg is displaced from the nest. The goose rolls back the displaced egg with its beak to the original position. However if the egg is removed while being rolled back, the goose still acts as if rolling an imaginary egg. Oleic acid is emitted by decaying corpses of insects which stimulates the living workers of the insect society to remove the corpse4 from the colony. Interestingly if a living insect is daubed with oleic acid the same is dragged out by the other worker insects. On the other hand in the society of shore crabs [Carcinus maenas ] it is observed that dominance hierarchies are influenced by both intrinsic [say body size] and extrinsic [ For example previous experience] factors5.
Selfishness and altruism emerge as competition and cooperation at the level of intra and inter societies/ nations.

Systems approach

In fact all the survival strategies of living systems at various levels are in hierarchy based one above the other, but we study them independently in genetics, cell biology, psychology, ethology, and sociology, forgetting that all these strategies are of the same organism. The underlying biological mechanisms of the survival strategies must operate in tandem for they are all within one complex organism. Apparently the programmes that operate the survival mechanisms are at three levels viz genetic, physiological and psychological. Molecular information flow in living organism is essentially one way according to Francis Crick that is from DNA to RNA to Protein and thus it is obvious that survival strategies of living organism at different levels pass on information in that way that is from genetic level to physiological to psychological. Extrinsic factors such as previous experience however may influence the social behavior along with intrinsic genetic factors. However for day to day operations programmes in these three levels are obviously delegated with independence. What social habits an individual is going to inculcate is not decided by the genetics alone of that individual. The following illustration shows, the hierarchy of survival strategies of living systems at various levels viz [1] genome [2] organism [3] intra society and [4] intra and inter societies.




Human societies

All societies including human societies have to struggle for survival in the ever changing physical environment by adapting to the conditions of the environment. However because of the abundant free will due to the evolution of the brain, humans can build a secondary artificial environment say by introducing new economic, political, cultural, social and technological systems. This ability to build the secondary environment is what distinguishes human societies from the animal societies. The secondary environments are consciously buildable by consensus unlike the evolution by genetic processes.


Systems concepts6 include: system- environment boundary, input, output, process, state, hierarchy, goal directedness and information. Hence systems approach is the only way to study the survival strategies of living systems and also the very process of evolution of species. Decades back Sir JC Bose said7 that living things respond to “internal stimulus of will”. He further talked of “power of directive control by will”. The stimulus of the survival strategies of living systems is the will to survive which might exist as internal will (or bound will or an existing programme) and free will. Those who think that evolution is random can never understand what JC Bose had said. JC Bose said that matter is [also] sensitive and that they respond to [external] mechanical and electrical stimulation. Thus we may say that internal stimulus of will distinguishes a living system from matter the physical system. In fact evolution of species is non random lead by the predominance of non spontaneous processes.
It should be recognized that (1) self assembly-replication properties of DNA, (2) the instincts self preservation and procreation of individual organism, (3) behavioral traits selfishness and altruism and (4) competition and cooperation at intra and inter society are two faces of the same coin however opposite they may appear and operate at the levels of (1) genome, (2) organism, (3) society and (4) Intra and inter society in a netted hierarchy in the direction of molecular information flow.

Closing remarks

The hierarchy of survival strategies of living systems is better under stood from the point of view of systems biology. Survival strategies are stimulated by “internal will” of the living organism.


The author is thankful to Prof NC Aery for providing “The Unity of Life” the article by Sir JC Bose, to Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar for patiently answering queries about eusocial behavior of R. marginata and to Robert Karl Stonjek for introducing to the article cited at reference 5.


  1. Raghavendra Gadagkar, Science as a hobby: how and why I came to study the social life of an Indian primitively eusocial wasp, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 100, NO. 6, 25 MARCH 2011. 
  2. Campbell, N. A. (1996) Biology (4th edition), Chapter 50. Benjamin Cummings, New York, (cf)
  3. Colby J. Tanner, Gul Deniz Salali and Andrew L. Jackson, The ghost of social environments past: dominance relationships include current interactions and experience carried over from previous groups, The Royal Society,
  4. Bose, JC, Unity of Life, Everyman’s Science, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Oct.-Nov. 2004.

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