The history of life is punctuated by a number of major transitions in hierarchy, defined here as the degree of nestedness of lower-level individuals within higher-level ones: the combination of single-celled prokaryotic cells to form the first eukaryotic cell, the aggregation of single eukaryotic cells to form complex multicellular organisms, and finally, the association of multicellular organisms to form complex colonial individuals. These transitions together constitute one of the most salient and certain trends in the history of life, in particular, a trend in maximum hierarchical structure, which can be understood as a trend in complexity. This trend could be produced by a biased mechanism, in which increases in hierarchy are more likely than decreases, or by an unbiased one, in which increases and decreases are about equally likely. At stake is whether or not natural selection or some other force acts powerfully over the history of life to drive complexity upward.
Too few major transitions are known to permit rigorous statistical discrimination of trend mechanisms based on these transitions alone. However, the mechanism can be investigated by using “minor transitions” in hierarchy, or, in other words, changes in the degree of individuation of the upper level. This study tests the null hypothesis that the probability (or rate) of increase and decrease in individuation are equal in a phylogenetic context. We found published phylogenetic trees for clades spanning minor transitions across the tree of life and identified changes in character states associated with those minor transitions. We then used both parsimony- and maximum-likelihood-based methods to test for asymmetrical rates of character evolution. Most analyses failed to reject equal rates of hierarchical increase and decrease. In fact, a bias toward decreasing complexity was observed for several clades. These results suggest that no strong tendency exists for hierarchical complexity to increase.