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Major Generalist

It’s interesting that everyone needs to come up with their own “process” for writing. And, while there are certain common elements, each person needs to find out what works best for them. Over the years, I have read and heard a number of accounts about how writers write, and one of the most consistent elements appears to be that you need to write. Sometimes, what you write about is less important than the act of writing. Then, you need to edit, and refine, and cut, cut, cut. Most people use two words when one will do, or over-complicate their writing in an attempt to make themselves appear “intelligent”, or use technical jargon when writing for an audience unfamiliar with it.

My current preference is to try and come up with an interesting or amusing “hook”, that relates in some (preferably amusing) way to my point. In the course of this, I sometimes come up with some fascinating rabbit-holes, and occasionally decide to dig a bit deeper. Of course it depends on the audience, but my general preference in explanatory writing is to build a dialogue, in which I answer anticipated questions as they come up. For blogging, my goal is to be informal, and to present a stream of consciousness which (hopefully) leads somewhere.

In any event, I’ve recently been thinking about the difference between “generalists” and “specialists”. In particular, I was thinking about variants of the quote:

“An expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing”

This made me think of the famous “Major-General’s Song”, and I tried to come up with something funny, along the lines of a “Specialist-General”. Then I started looking at other versions of the song. I was already familiar with Tom Lehrer’s famous parody, The Elements, but then I discovered XKCD’s wonderful version, Every Major’s Terrible

Then, I found a reference to Harley Hahn’s “The Unix Sysadmin Song”, which led me down a bit of a rabbit-hole. When I followed the link to the song, I got an error due to the security settings on my browser.

I have commented on this before, and am reluctant to connect to “HTTP-only” sites, which led me back to the Wayback Machine. But I generally like to learn a bit about authors that I reference, so I tried to do a little bit of digging. While I found many references to Harley Hahn’s books, which appear to focus on technology and appear to have generally positive reviews, all of the biographical references appeared to go back to his personal site. I found it very interesting that I could find almost nothing about this person which was not directly published by him – I won’t pursue that further right now, but may do so at some future date, perhaps if I post about Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

Getting back to the original point (by whatever circuitous route) about generalists and specialists, I kept returning to the fact that humans (as a species) specialize in being generalists.

In biological terms, a generalist is able to thrive in a variety of environments, while a specialist is able to thrive in a more narrow range of environments. There are a variety of reasons why either of these might be beneficial for a given species.

As an example of a specialist, koalas feed almost exclusively on a few varieties of eucalyptus leaves. This makes them extremely well-adapted to living in eucalyptus woodlands, but has the downside of making them extremely vulnerable to any changes to their habitat (such as those caused by humans).

In stark contrast, the raccoon is a generalist, being extremely adaptable in both diet and climate, along with being very intelligent. This allows them to thrive in a wide variety of environments, including human cities.

What about humans, though? Where do we fall?

Compared to other species, Humans aren’t particularly fast, or strong, or sturdy. But we are intelligent, social, and adaptable. But other species are intelligent, other species are social, and other species are adaptable. Previous models of human evolution assumed a linear evolutionary path, where one species replaced another, but we now know that modern humans evolved in parallel with other close relatives, and that there was significant sharing of genes between these branches of humanity’s evolutionary “bush”.

Neanderthals were not primitive brutes, as previously believed, but were intelligent and had a sophisticated technology, with brains averaging larger than H. Sapiens. They were, however, particularly suited to higher-altitudes, so were less adaptable. Denisovans were closely related to Neanderthals, and also well-suited to higher altitudes, while H. Floresiensis was well-suited to equatorial rainforests.

In contrast, H. Sapiens was more adaptable, and appears in all of these environments, and more. Is this adaptability the reason H. Sapiens survived? Possibly, but it raises the question of what we actually mean by adaptable. While it seems clear that intelligence is a factor, we don’t know the degree to which it was relevant. For example, Neanderthal skulls were shaped differently, suggesting that they had a larger occipital lobe, but a smaller cerebellum. This may suggest differences in tool use, creativity, and social development, but the truth is that we simply don’t know at this point.

What we do know is that H. Sapiens is extraordinarily adaptable, and that we are the ones who survived. So in that sense, at least, we are the major generalists.


EDITORIAL NOTE: While my personal preference is to include “raw” URLs parenthetically, I rarely see this in the wild, so I have started to simply hyperlink. I’ll try to be consistent, but it may be a while before that happens. Cheers!


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