1. Evolutionary Biology
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The consequences of group structure and efficiency benefits for the evolution of division of labour

  1. Guy Alexander Cooper  Is a corresponding author
  2. Hadleigh Frost
  3. Ming Liu
  4. Stuart Andrew West
  1. St John's College, United Kingdom
  2. University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Research Article
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Cite this article as: eLife 2021;10:e71968 doi: 10.7554/eLife.71968


Recent theory has overturned the assumption that accelerating returns from individual specialisation are required to favour the evolution of division of labour. Yanni et al. (2020) showed that topologically constrained groups, where cells cooperate with only direct neighbours such as for filaments or branching growths, can evolve a reproductive division of labour even with diminishing returns from individual specialisation. We develop a conceptual framework and specific models to investigate the factors that can favour the initial evolution of reproductive division of labour. We find that selection for division of labour in topologically constrained groups: (1) is not a single mechanism to favour division of labour - depending upon details of the group structure, division of labour can be favoured for different reasons; (2) always involves an efficiency benefit at the level of group fitness; and (3) requires a mechanism of coordination to determine which individuals perform which tasks. Given that such coordination must evolve prior to or concurrently with division of labour, this could limit the extent to which topological constraints favoured the initial evolution of division of labour. We conclude by suggesting experimental designs that could determine why division of labour is favoured in the natural world.

Data availability

The Matlab (R2020b) source code used to generate Figures 4D-F is available at https://osf.io/nw8gz/

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Author details

  1. Guy Alexander Cooper

    St John's College, Oxford, United Kingdom
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-1748-8183
  2. Hadleigh Frost

    University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Ming Liu

    University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-5170-8688
  4. Stuart Andrew West

    University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


H2020 European Research Council (834164)

  • Stuart Andrew West

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Raymond E Goldstein, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Publication history

  1. Received: July 6, 2021
  2. Accepted: October 26, 2021
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: October 29, 2021 (version 1)


© 2021, Cooper et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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