23 September 2010

On the Paradox Between Specialization and Diversification

This  topic is on my mind because of reading a random anthropology based book on early human history in Africa last night.   The author points out a paradox in a young community between specializing in a certain survival strategy (hunting, agriculture, raising animals, etc.) and diversification into many.  The underlying goal of a community is, of course, population growth. and long term (multi-generation) survival. 

The specialized community if successful will become very good at whatever survival strategy they have selected.  They become very good farmers or very good hunters etc.  The diversified community will not gain the same high level of skill in any one area, but are much more likely to be able to survive a disaster that makes one style of gaining food temporarily unavailable.  A specialized agricultural society will be able to grow faster than a diverse society as long as harvests are good, when a drought comes the diverse society will be more likely to survive until the rain comes than a specialized society. 

These ideas are also common in the realms of economics and finance.  Classical economics is filled with ideas of the (forced) division of labor, that is, specialization being what makes capitalism so much more productive than all systems that have come before it.   Finance literature is filled with claims that diversification will mediate risk and make a successful investor. 

What is more important to me today is how this paradox also enters into the realms of personal choice.  I have lived my life along the safe route of diversification chosen by communities that survive but do not grow.  If kicked out of academia (possibly because of mediocre blog posts such as this one), I have many skills to fall back on.  I can bartend (still do), I could get a job in the construction trades (through a little creative padding of my resume), I can manage workers fairly successfully.  The flip side of my attempt at becoming a modern renaissance man is that I have not spent as much time specializing as many of my colleagues.

I am doomed to watch people younger than myself finish their dissertations before I do.  Also doomed (possibly) to not achieve as much success in my chosen profession as quickly as I could have if I had spent more of my time specialized on economics, and less time partaking in a diverse set of activities. 

Have I made a good choice? I guess we will see if the drought comes ever comes. 

Finally, I have used the word paradox without fully explaining it.  The paradox only truly arises when a community's goals are both fast growth and survival during disaster (evolutionary biology tells us that it almost always is.)

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