Parental investment and edited volumes

A random piece I found I wrote back in 2009 …

A few years ago I picked up a few volumes from the Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution in a book sale. One of these was The Evolution of Sibling Rivalry by Douglas W. Mock and Geoffrey A. Parker. (Another excellent volume was Biological Invasions: Theory and Practice by Nanako Shigesada and Kohkichi Kawasaki – even if the title suggests a how-to manual for bioterrorists.)

Mock and Parker cover their subject in great detail and in a highly readable fashion. One area in particular struck me as having wider application. One of the conclusions summarised in chapter 10 reads:

Where PI (parental investment) is contributed by both parents, most taxa should exhibit ‘sexual conflict’ over how much each contributes. ESS (evolutionary stable strategy) models of biparental care make the paradoxical prediction of less PI per offspring than under uniparental care (or an idealized ‘true monogamy’, wherein partners mate for life). In a biparental situation, if one mate unilaterally lowers its share of the load, its partner should compensate partially (thereby buffering the offspring from the full force of the uniparental deprivation), but not fully (i.e. not so as to make up for the total cut-back), unless there is true monogamy. The implications for sibling rivalry are clear. Selfish games between the care-givers can shrink the ‘cake’ on which the offspring depend, thereby accentuating their own incentives for selfishness. Some recent field studies of European songbirds provide some support for these and related predictions.

The Evolution of Sibling Rivalry, p.231

This seems to apply very nicely to my experience in reading a range of volumes from individual authors (or small numbers of co-authors) and comparing them with edited volumes each with many authors. In nearly all cases, the overall quality of a book and the benefit derived from reading it (and often more mundane aspects such as the quality of the proof-reading) seems proportional to the number of authors. Of course there are likely to be several contributing factors. A single author has the ability to develop arguments and draw connections between different topics in ways which are much harder for multiple authors. Nevertheless I suspect that authors arrive at a very similar stable strategy to that realised by European songbirds. To rephrase one of the sentences above:

In a multi-author situation, if one author unilaterally lowers its share of the load, the co-authors should compensate partially (thereby buffering the volume from the full force of the author’s dereliction), but not fully (i.e. not so as to make up for the total cut-back), unless there is a (stable, long-term) partnership between the authors.

Certainly not an earth-shattering insight, but one that is, I am sure, applicable in many areas of work and life.