This note is about expertise in human and more-than-human collectives.



The notion of expertise relates to that of plasticity and ecological niches. Energetically costly and risky exploration and learning are needed to obtain benefits of broader niches and the flexibility that comes with them.

Snell-Rood, Emilie C., and Sean M. Ehlman. ‘Ecology and Evolution of Plasticity’. In Phenotypic Plasticity & Evolution, edited by David W. Pfennig, 139–60. CRC Press, 2021.

Also see Dukas, below.

No consensus on what expertise is but there is consensus that it should be observable (this is referring to human psychology).

Expertise is a deliberate practice, “an effortful activity motivated by the goal of improving performance” 1

“characteristics, skills and knowledge allowing individuals with extensive experience to perform significantly better than novices on a given complex task” (Dukas)

Expertise as a social construction

Presumes the existence of a reasonably large group (of humans) that consider (label) the individual as an expert.

On social recognition: Agnew, Neil, Kenneth Ford, and Patrick Hayes. ‘Expertise In Context: Personally Constructed, Socially Selected and Reality-Relevant?’ International Journal of Expert Systems 7, no. 1 (1994): 65–88.

On labels: Sternberg, Robert J., and Talia Ben-Zeev. Complex Cognition: The Psychology of Human Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

On this definition, guide dogs are legally recognised experts. 2

One question here is: are humans alone entitled to provide social recognition of expertise? This does not seem right.

Expertise as exceptional performance

Expertise as knowledge


Animals can be experts regardless of consciousness. 3

Key Concepts

Related to Knowledge and also Culture

Expertise, typically, is something that is distinguished by the mode of acquisitions, it is something that is learned by an individual.

However, does the mode of acquisition matter? If an individual or a group can do something well, achieving some goals or satisfying some criteria, this is a form of expertise: an ability to do well under constraints. (in this case, what is the difference from adaptation in general? I guess this needs to be based on actions and behaviour)

On human/nonhuman learning in the context of integrative biology, see

Woolcott, Geoff. Reconceptualising Information Processing for Education. Singapore: Springer, 2020.

Nonhuman Expertise

Animals can learn, innovate, have some plasticity. this is interesting but does not have to be crucial. They are successful because they exist (have survived), as such they have done something well.

Dukas, Reuven. ‘Animal Expertise: Mechanisms, Ecology and Evolution’. Animal Behaviour 147 (2019): 199–210.

Prasher, Sanjay, Julian C. Evans, Megan J. Thompson, and Julie Morand-Ferron. ‘Characterizing Innovators: Ecological and Individual Predictors of Problem-Solving Performance’. PLOS ONE 14, no. 6 (2019): e0217464.

Rojas-Ferrer, Isabel, and Julie Morand-Ferron. ‘The Impact of Learning Opportunities on the Development of Learning and Decision-Making: An Experiment with Passerine Birds’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 375, no. 1803 (2020): 20190496.

Snell-Rood, Emilie C., and Sean M. Ehlman. ‘Ecology and Evolution of Plasticity’. In Phenotypic Plasticity & Evolution, edited by David W. Pfennig, 139–60. CRC Press, 2021.

On expertise of leaders in ant teams:

Richardson, Thomas O., Andrea Coti, Nathalie Stroeymeyt, and Laurent Keller. ‘Leadership – Not Followership – Determines Performance in Ant Teams’. Communications Biology 4, no. 1 (2021): 1–9.

"This article provides evidence indicative of animals meeting each of the three definitions of expertise established in the scientific literature: expertise as a social construction, expertise as exceptional performance, and expertise as knowledge. In addition, cases of deliberate practice by non-human animals are offered. Acknowledging some animals as experts, regardless of consciousness, is warranted by the research findings and would prove useful in solving many issues remaining in the human expertise literature"

Helton, William S. ‘Animal Expertise, Conscious or Not’. Animal Cognition 8, no. 2 (2005): 67–74.

Also in

Helton, William S., and Nicole D. Helton. ‘Expertise in Other Animals: Canines as an Example’. In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, edited by K. Anders Ericsson, 2nd ed., 49–59. 2008. Reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

For good definitions and the discussion of 'deliberate practice', with a mention of Helton and animals, see:

Suddendorft, Thomas, Melissa Brinums, and Kana Imuta. ‘Shaping One’s Future Self: The Development of Deliberate Practice’. In Seeing the Future: Theoretical Perspectives on Future-Oriented Mental Time Travel, edited by Kourken Michaelian, Stanley B. Klein, and Karl K. Szpunar, 343–66. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

This comprehensive book has example on expertise in Insects:

Córdoba-Aguilar, Alex, ed. Insect Behavior: From Mechanisms to Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

  • Habitat selection at multiple scales (there is quite a bit of literature)
  • Building by animals
  • Communication with its expert performers and local accents


  1. plasticity (Private)
  2. innovation (Private)


  1. Ericsson, K. Anders, and Neil Charness. ‘Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition’. American Psychologist 49, no. 8 (1994): 725–47.˄

  2. Helton, William S. Canine Ergonomics: The Science of Working Dogs. Baton Rouge: Taylor & Francis, 2009.˄

  3. Helton, William S. ‘Animal Expertise, Conscious or Not’. Animal Cognition 8, no. 2 (2005): 67–74.˄