Why homogeneity is not required for cooperation

Sometimes you need homogeneity for cooperation. Imagine two horses pulling a cart. The job will simply go more smoothly if they have similar sizes, gaits, and strengths. Other times the opposite of homogeneity is optimal. In lichens the fungus and the algae bring very different things to the interaction. In basketball a team of all centers would not prevail, as my son reminded me. How about scientific cooperation? Is homogeneity an advantage?

I hope it mostly is not. If homogeneity were so crucial would I, a red-headed, left-handed field biologist and mother with some attitude ever have thrived in the science establishment? Have we not flourished exactly because we bring different perspectives to thorny problems, collaborating from the vantage of difference, not similarity?

I bring this up after reviewing a research program recently as part of a team. In the report one of the other reviewers kept using the word homogeneous as if it were a good thing, not the thing that sent shivers down my back. International teams with different first languages may have more challenges to communicating than are immediately apparent. I don’t know if this is one of them or is a difference in perspective.

I hear that in hiring decisions employers often look for commonalities even when the are irrelevant to the job. Why should playing golf matter, for example? You might say that friendly outside of work interactions facilitate communication, but that is something that can be developed directly. I love my grandmother’s German cooking, but enjoy the meals served me by my Indian or Peruvian friends even more, to give just one example.

In collaborations it is easy to misunderstand the contributions of very different teammates. I cannot know exactly what went into figuring out the chemical structure of the small molecules that our social amoebae use to manipulate. I trust it was hard. I trust that the work was done well. I love the collaboration, for from our diversity comes mutual strengths none of us have alone. Remember not to confuse cooperation with homogeneity!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaborating, Politics, Scientific community. Bookmark the permalink.

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