January 07, 2004

Generalists Rule

. . . . Or do they?

Robert Heinlein once stated:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and lastly die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

For my entire adult life, I have avoided specialization, maintaining a broad range of interests and pursuits (while semi-specializing in a couple -- at least enough to make a living!) And in fact the conventional wisdom holds that evolution favors generalist species over highly specialized ones. Carl Zimmer summarizes this wisdom and points to the early hominid Paranthropus as the classic example of an over-specialized evolutionary dead-end. But then he points to an abstract of an article "in press"(*) that challenges this conventional view of Paranthropus and concludes that Paranthropus was likely an ecological generalist like early Homo.

If true, then why did Paranthropus die out and Homo survive? Are we technologically-empowered super-generalists secure in our evolutionary niche? As Carl concludes: "Paranthropus looks on our happy beliefs from its oblivion and wonders."

(*)"In Press" here means the article has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, but not yet published.

Posted by JohnL at January 7, 2004 09:29 PM
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