[OPE] An American with real brains: report from the ant heap

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Thu Nov 20 2008 - 12:05:06 EST

November 20, 2008, 6:30 am
Adam Smith, Disproved
By Catherine Rampel
Adam Smith, in his famous pin factory description, wrote that labor specialization improves productivity. He should have specified which species he was referring to. A new paper finds that ants that specialize are no more productive than ants that don't. The author, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona named Anna Dornhaus, studied how efficiently rock ants completed their tasks of brood transport, collecting sweets, foraging for protein and nest building. An ant was considered more specialized the more it concentrated its work on one particular task. She found that the ants that specialized in these tasks did not perform them more efficiently than the ants that remained "generalists," and in some cases performed their tasks less efficiently. Her conclusions: My results indicate that at least in this species, a task is not primarily performed by individuals that are especially adapted to it (by whatever mechanism). This result implies that if social insects are collectively successful, this is not obviously for the reason that they employ specialized workers who perform better individually. A hat tip goes to the myrmecological Mark Thoma. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/adam-smith-disproved/?hp
From: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/adam-smith-disproved/?hp

(Marx already implied that political economy typically confused the advantages of trade (which may obviously not necessarily devolve on all participants in equal measure) with the advantages of the division of labour. This confusion takes all kinds of forms - the central theme is usually that trade will supply an advantageous specialization, or conversely, that an advantageous specialisation promotes trade. Thus implicit in this ideology is the idea that trade will always generate an advantageous (or the best) division of labour. The question is then how a division of labour arises in the first instance, and what exactly is the real relationship between trade and the division of labour. In general, the critical literature argues that trade and the division of labour tend to promote the position of those who already have an advantageous position in most respects. (See: Ali Rattansi, Marx and the division of labour, and Andre Gorz (ed.), The division of labour). This issue is of some relevance to the theory of comparative advantage, since comparative advantage may, or may not, promote greater efficiency in production. The underlying idea is the intuitive truth that you should try to do what you are best at, but the problem there is that doing what you are best at may be conditional on the cooperation of other people.



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