Incomplete division of labor: error-prone multitaskers coexist with specialists.

Research paper by A E AE D'Orazio, T A TA Waite

Indexed on: 21 Nov '07Published on: 21 Nov '07Published in: Journal of Theoretical Biology


Division of labor (DoL) occurs when individual members of a group specialize by performing particular tasks toward some common goal. Under complete DoL, every individual acts as a specialist and so performs only one kind of task. But under incomplete DoL, some individuals may act as generalists and so have the capacity to perform more than one kind of task. This persistence of generalists in the presence of specialists presents a theoretical challenge, particularly if generalists must pay an extra cost, an inefficiency penalty, for their capacity to perform more than one type of task. Prior work focused on how such costs tend to drive evolution toward complete DoL, with only specialists typically remaining at equilibrium [Wahl, L.M., 2002a. Evolving the division of labor: generalists, specialists and task allocation. J. Theoret. Biol. 219, 371-388; Wahl, L.M., 2002b. The division of labor: genotypic versus phenotypic specialization. Am. Nat. 160, 135-145]. Relaxing this key assumption, we show that generalists, despite paying some extra costs, can coexist with specialists. Relaxing another assumption, we also show that this coexistence can hold even when generalists often perform the wrong task. How can stable multitasking emerge despite this flawed decision-making? From the perspective that cognitive errors matter only when they translate into fitness decrements, we observe that error-prone generalists may persist most commonly in situations in which their mistakes do little to jeopardize group success. Our findings show that incomplete DoL can emerge even when generalists often err and must pay extra costs for their multitasking capacity.