EDIT: Since many people think this question is unclear, let me rephrase it: Can a species with only specialists survive unassisted for a long period of time?

Specific applications:

  • A Robot group where every bot can only optimize itself to do one job and one job only (miner drones cannot fix itself, builder drones cannot find material...)
  • A RPG-inspired universe where everyone is optimized to the max (the world is populated by barbarians who can kill gods but have no vocational training for anything not combat-related or take care of himself in a normal setting; or diplomats whose voice is better than mind control, but die to a stray sneeze)
  • A RTS-inspired universe (where your "society" is made of individuals whose purpose in life is to shoot things, drive machinery, operate buildings, etc., and no more)
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    $\begingroup$ Is there any reason why the answer isn't just 'it's up to you'? It seems like a system that is well designed for it should be able to run for quite a while as long as there are materials but if you want something to fail, you have it fail... $\endgroup$ – Cronax May 16 '18 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ If I want it to fall of course I can just make it fail, but i want to see if being overly specialized a big enough hurdle that no amount of plot armor is going to save it first $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang May 16 '18 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ Title is about species, body is about robots... then, body is about humans? I'm not sure what's actual question and what is just fluff text. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 16 '18 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot A robot with Evolutionary Computation might as well be a species with metal and polymer body. The question remain the same: Can a species survive if it is composed of only specialists and no generalist at all? $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang May 16 '18 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/112434/32360 My comment below $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang May 16 '18 at 13:27

"Is it possible for a species to survive unassisted if each individual is so specialized to the point that they cannot survive without the colony?" Yes, quite obviously. Eusocial insects are very successful species. Bees, ants, termites...

Seven leafcutter ant workers of various castes (left) and two queens (right)

Seven leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) workers of various castes (left) and two queens (right). Picture by GameKeeper, available on Wikimedia under the CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Not stated: the fact that these eusocial insects do not survive well outside of the structure of the colony. Might be worth adding that, just to complete the answer. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon May 16 '18 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Can you give an example of them adapting (preferably rapidly) to a changing or unstable environment? With the Colony Collapse Disorder experienced by bees, I do not think they are doing well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang May 18 '18 at 6:17

Taking a distance from your specific problem, I would say that in every situation where "expect the unexpected" is the norm, the most generalist thrive, the highly specialized is bound to fail unless the conditions are exactly those for which it is suited.

Colonizing a planet is by definition a place where to expect the unexpected, so highly specialized things at the beginning would not be suited. The best would be start with a vastly generalist set, and then let evolution forge the specialists on the spot.

Having a group to support the individual and also a versatile brain is a huge advantage, proof be how far a naked ape has gone despite not being the fastest or the strongest.

As example of a highly specialized being depending on the colony for survival, take a queen ant or a queen bee. Specialized in laying eggs, it cannot survive for long without the colony.


Redundancy is the key. Lets have two very basic options

Option 1

Mining Drone Mines materials for the colony x1

Construction Drone builds buildings for the colony x1

Repair Drone Fixes the drones if they encounter faults x1

Water... erm... creation drone creates and recovers water for the drones and other processes to use x1

Biofuel Farming Drone farms and cultures biofuel to run the drones x1

With this option each is only capable of it's own specific function, and also capable of keeping the basics for continued operation going, if any of the drones fail, then the system will struggle, but if the repair drone fails then nothing can perform repairs and therefore when each drone fails over time then they will stay failed and everything else fails along with it.

Option 2

Mining Drone Mines materials for the colony x2

Construction Drone builds buildings for the colony x2

Repair Drone Fixes the drones if they encounter faults x2

Water creation drone creates and recovers water for the drones and other processes to use x2

Biofuel Farming Drone farms and cultures biofuel to run the drones x2

This system is identical to the first but has redundancy, if each each drone is normally running at say 50% of its ability to provide the colony with that function, then in the event of its partner failure, then it can run at 100% for a time to allow the colony to continue at standard efficiency. in that down time the repair drone can fix the faulty one and then be back to normal, if a repair drone fails, then the other one can fix it.

Short of a massive failure or accident that takes out multiple drones then there's no reason, providing they were built well in the first place, that this system could not last until the resources completely ran out.


There are no humans around anymore who can do everything necessary to survive. Most people already fail to fix common household items like taps or light switches.

Group H can also fail when some disease breaks out. Not every human colony in history was a success. Being flexible helps but it's not a guarantee.

So the answer depends on what disasters can happen that no one predicted (so there is no plan) or when an expected disaster gets out of hand. Like when you need a lot of ore because of disaster X and then a mine caves in, reducing your production of ore AND causing a higher demand for ore to replace the destroyed miners.

One solution would be to add buffers, that is mine much more than you need and store that somewhere when something bad happens. Another solution is to make drone from a few standard parts so it's easy to swap in and out parts. Some parts like the 3D printers are more important, so they will get priority when planning repairs. Each of these makes the drone colony more resilient.

The overall success will depend on whether something happens which overwhelms the resilience of the colony. If that never happens, the drones will probably die when the Sun boils the planet in a few billion years.

As for disasters, you will have cheating manufacturers (some parts of the drones will already be broken before they get there), programming mistakes, natural disasters (sandstorms that are much worse than expected), space ship didn't land where it was supposed to be, more clouds than expected (so the solar panels don't generate enough juice for everything).

An interesting scenario would be when the drones can adjust to the circumstances (which would be good for resilience) plus the goal to grow the colony. Eventually, the colony will cover the whole planet. Since they have to grow (it's unlikely that this is one of the parameters which they can "evolve") what will happen next? Will the go below surface, hollowing the planet out? Start to astro-mine? Send a few billion drones to get resources from Earth?

  • $\begingroup$ Somewhat similar to the Pixar film Wall-E, a droid capable of self repair, may evolve a personality over time, but continue it's original function to collect refuse, compact it slightly and then stack for another droid to crush further. over the years he builds skyscrapers out of the blocks of compacted refuse. $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith May 16 '18 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith Remember that in Pop Culture, technology = magic (writers don't understand it), so machine can magically develop features that are actually impossible. Simple example: If the brain capacity of the drones is too small, they can't become as intelligent as humans. If the program doesn't allow them to change this feature, the will never be (individually). $\endgroup$ – Aaron Digulla May 17 '18 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ i was more refering to the continue endlessly and have othwise unexpected results... such as skyscrapers of rubbish $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith May 18 '18 at 8:39

The answer depends, as I see it, on the nature of the being in question and on the nature of their specialization. I'll go into detail on both.

On the nature of the being: Miner robots are almost certainly destined to fail. If their build is structured for mining and mining only, they probably have no way to grasp or lift anything other than raw ore, so they can't build anything to fuel themselves. It has a HIGHLY specialized being. If the robot is designed to mine and also handle minor obstacles, however, it may have a shot. Handling minor obstacles means it will probably get robotic arms and "hands," which goes a long way toward adaptability. With a fast enough learning algorithm and enough resources, it might be able to build the machines and parts it needs to survive before it runs out of fuel.

On the nature of the specialization: Humans, on the other hand, are known for the adaptability of our being. Most of us here on Earth in the 21st are specialists, but our bodies are built for anything you can imagine, which has allowed us to adapt to many different environments. I specialize in programming and my wife specializes in graphic design, but throw us in a survival situation and you can bet we're going to learn some new tricks real quick. Whether we learn fast enough to survive is up to us and the environment, but we definitely have a shot. We could imagine that going differently, though, in spite of our adaptable beings. The humans (my wife and I) are specialized to the degree that American society generally expects. We still cook our own food, clean our own house, drive our own cars, and perform many other tasks that we are not specialists at. We are mildly specialized. We could change that, for the sake of argument. Imagine we were raised in a weird distopia where I was chained to my desk and fed by IV for my entire life. A delivery specialist has always brought everything I need to survive from other specialists who made those things. I would be so highly specialized for programming that I would have no idea what food actually is. Throw me into a survival situation then and I don't have much hope. Do you think I can figure out that beef and milk comes from cows, or that my broccoli needs dirt, water, and sun to grow? Odds are I wouldn't even recognize any of the edible food growing around me as food. Despite the adaptability of my body, I would be so highly specialized that I would have no idea what to do to fulfill my needs.

I know this isn't a clear yes or no, but I hope it answers your question in terms of the variables you need to work with to get the outcome you want.

  • $\begingroup$ Yep that is why I compare the bots to human. We are basically nature's best generalist. With our tech and our intelligence, we can basically live anywhere, eat anything (within reason, but that reason is expanding) $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang May 16 '18 at 13:26

Yes, we have been doing it for a long time.

Individuals do not:

  • Hunt or grow their own food, they go to the grocery store.
  • Mine and smelt their own iron, they buy it.

The list could go on but I think you get the idea.

People are not multidisciplinary, they have one job and a limited set of more or less advanced skills. They earn a living by doing one thing and buy what others do, that's the core of our economy. We can't do everything ourselve and we need other people. If we were to do everything ourselve, it would be so unneficient, the society would collapse.

So yes, a specialised economy works very well.

  • $\begingroup$ And yet, if you dropped a human, in a survival situation, the majority of the planet (i stress planet, a lot of the western world is unfortunately less independent then many other countries) they most humans would be able to survive for a small amount of time, drop more than one and they will invariably survive, then may do so "only Just" but they would survive, Humans are far more adaptable then machines. $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith May 18 '18 at 8:08

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