Washington, Jan 31 : Scientists at the Ohio State University have shown that generalists can prosper in a specialist society, by designing a mathematical model which describes the circumstances that would allow them to endure.
The research team has demonstrated that nothing has to be defined by a division of labour where every individual has a specific role.
According to existing biological theories about the division of labour, individual members of a group lean to specialization to perform specific tasks toward a common goal.
But Ohio's new model, which tweaks two assumptions of the existing theory, suggests that there is a place in small groups for generalists to exist and possibly even to thrive.
Though the researchers caution against reading too much into the model's potential application to humans, they admit that in a socially and economically complex world, they find comfort in the model's implications about humankind.
"What this modeling showed me is that there are conditions under which it actually helps to have some generalists, especially for fairly small groups, some individuals that you might think of as Jacks- or Jills-of-all-trades or multitaskers," said Tom Waite, associate professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State and co-author of the study.
"You might actually have to pay them more and they might often do the wrong task, but if you don't have them, this whole notion of specialization leading to greater economic productivity might actually be wrong," he added.
Waite and doctoral candidate Anthony D'Orazio, lead author of the study, started with a well-known mathematical model in current biology literature that leads to complete division of labour. In their design, they relaxed two assumptions, making inefficiency less costly and allowing generalists to make mistakes.
The researchers determined the worth of generalists to small systems by designing mathematical equations and creating a computer program to run the equations with various values for different generalist and specialist behaviours. They carried the computation out to the point at which the system had completely evolved.
"We wanted to define a fair model that isn't too biased toward one group or one outcome," D'Orazio said.
D'Orazio initiated the development of a new model with the hopes of determining what he can expect in his study of sea anemones.
The species D'Orazio studies are members of a clonal aggregation, meaning they are all genetically identical. But these sea anemones exhibit two distinct types of roles: warriors or reproducers. Warriors tend to congregate on the outer edges of their groups to protect the masses, while within the group, others focus on reproducing.
D'Orazio hoped to create a model that would help determine the optimal allocation of these two types of specialists to ensure the group's survival. And yet, even these brainless creatures confounded his plan.
For Waite, the findings reinforce his broader world view.
"We should value each other much more. We should value people who have a diversity of skills and interests. They might not have really recognizable specific skills but they might be good at doing lots of things," he said.
For biological purposes, the new model will set a standard for future work, D'Orazio noted.
"We were trying to clarify confusion in the literature. We're not saying any system should strive for incomplete division of labor, but that it exists and this is an example of it."
The research appears online in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.