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Division of labour and the evolution of extreme specialization

Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018) | Download Citation


Division of labour is a common feature of social groups, from biofilms to complex animal societies. However, we lack a theoretical framework that can explain why division of labour has evolved on certain branches of the tree of life but not others. Here, we model the division of labour over a cooperative behaviour, considering both when it should evolve and the extent to which the different types should become specialized. We found that: (1) division of labour is usually—but not always—favoured by high efficiency benefits to specialization and low within-group conflict; and (2) natural selection favours extreme specialization, where some individuals are completely dependent on the helping behaviour of others. We make a number of predictions, several of which are supported by the existing empirical data, from microbes and animals, while others suggest novel directions for empirical work. More generally, we show how division of labour can lead to mutual dependence between different individuals and hence drive major evolutionary transitions, such as those to multicellularity and eusociality.

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The authors thank the following people for helpful discussion and comments on the manuscript: S. Levin, M. dos Santos, J. Biernaskie, A. Griffin, C. Cornwallis, P. Taylor, K. Boomsma, D. Unterwegger, K. Foster, G. Wild, A. Grafen, G. Taylor, T. Kiers and R. Fisher. We acknowledge the use of the University of Oxford Advanced Research Computing (ARC) facility in carrying out this work. G.A.C. is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/F500394/1).

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  1. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Guy A. Cooper
    •  & Stuart A. West


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G.A.C. carried out the modelling work. G.A.C. and S.A.W. conceived the study and wrote the paper. Both authors gave final approval for publication.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Guy A. Cooper.

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