Eclectic Curiosity

An Anthropological Theory of Generalism

Posted on February 2nd, 2008, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

I stumbled upon this pseudo-academic website describing the virtues of Generalism, but in a biological and anthropological sense. Its summary reads:

The theory of Generalism states that whereas most species are specialists (they live in one habitat and eat one type of food), some are generalists (they can live in different habitats and eat different foods). Apes are generalists, but humans have evolved to become extreme generalists.

The theory of Generalism can explain so many of the differences between us and our nearest relatives. It explains our bigger brains and longer lives. It also explains why we have more sensitive and dextrous fingers, and are better tool-users. It explains why we are more social and communicative, and complements the social theory of the origins of intelligence and language.

I thought a few of the items on the unknown author’s list of generalist characteristics (in species) were quite interesting:

1. A large brain – because reasoning and problem solving are important for generalists. “They have to remember not only the many different types of food but also their location, the season and what methods were needed to obtain them. … An assessment of the inter-relationship of all the variables involved – shape, size, colour, texture, aroma, taste and feelings of pain or nausea – is necessary for each food item. This information must be constantly updated in the light of ongoing experience.” Traits: adaptability, synthesis of information, understanding of systems.

2. Longevity – because unlike specialists who can rely on instinct, generalists need time to learn. “The more generalist a species is the more time is needed. Older individuals may survive better and help their communities survive better by passing on their experience.” Traits: time to ponder and consider, allowance of tangents, learning from elders.

3. Living in groups – “Group-living can be valuable for specialists, but even more valuable for generalists. In groups, individuals can learn from each other, especially the young from the old.” Traits: collaboration, the sharing of disparate information, the importance of story.

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