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trade-offTrade-off (ger.)

  • A balance achieved between two desirable but incompatible features; a sacrifice made in one area to obtain benefits in another; a bargain, a compromise. (OED 1986)  
    life history
    -4th/-3rd century (BC)

    [συμβαίνειδέ, ὅτανμὲνεὐβλαστῶσινἄγαν, ἀκαρπεῖνμᾶλλον, ὅτανδεὐκαρπῶσιν, ἀβλαστεῖνὡςοὐδυναμένηςεἰςἄμφωδιήκειντῆςφύσεως, ἀλλὰκαὶκαταναλισκούσηςθάτερονπρὸςθάτερον. ἴδιονδὲτὸἐπὶτῆςσυκῆςκαὶτῶνλευκῶνἀμπέλωνσυμβαῖνονὥςτινέςφασιν· ταῦταγὰρὅτανεὐβλαστῶσιτότεμάλισταεὐκαρπεῖ, εἰδὲτοῦτόἐστικαὶτὸπρότερονεἰρημένονἀληθές. γὰρεὐβλάστειαἀφαιρεῖταιτοὺςκαρπούς· γίνεταιδὲτοῦτομάλισταχώραςἀρετῇκαὶἰσχύϊτῶνδένδρων· ἐνγῇμὲνγὰρἀφθόνῳτάδεἑλκῦσαιδεινὰδιὰτὴνἰσχύν, ὥσπερἀμυγδαλῆκαὶῥόα. [It so happens that when there is an exceptionally good sprouting of shoots trees tend to produce little fruit, whereas abundant fruiting is attended by a poor production of shoots. This implies that the nature of the trees lacks the power to achieve both objects, and proceeds to expend the provision of the one on the other.]

    Theophrast, De causis plantarum 1.20.5 [transl. by B. Einarson & G.K.K. Link, Cambridge, Mass. 1976].]


    [inverse variation between Individuation and Genesis [...:] where the ability to maintain individual life is small, the ability to propagate must be great, and vice versa

    Spencer, H. (1867). The Principles of Biology, vol. 2: 473; 507-8.]


    [All it [viz. a formal input-output model] can show is the “trade off” in real cost between development in one industry and the alternatives of development in other industries which are thereby foregone.

    Moore, F.T. (1955). Regional economic reaction paths. Amer. Econom. Rev. 45, 133-148: 135.]


    The consumption frontier is always negatively sloped, indicating that the predator faces, at the margin, a “tradeoff” in the consumption of individuals of species Y for individuals of species X.

    Rapport, D.J. (1971). An optimization model of food selection. Amer. Nat. 105, 575-587: 575.


    [There may be] a lower reproductive output in one season than could be realized if the risk to future seasons were ignored. Ashmole (1971) suggested that such considerations may account for the evolution of deferred breeding in sea-birds. This trade-off of present fitness for future fitness (of the same individual) is the core of my analysis. The trade-off suggests that there can be simple natural selection for low-intensity reproductive effort under certain conditions.

    Goodman, D. (1974). Natural selection and a cost ceiling on reproductive effort. Amer. Nat. 108, 247-268: 250.


    Restating much of what Skutch had said, Cody (1966) reasoned that organisms have a limited amount of energy, and that they allocate it to reproduction, competition, and avoidance of predation. Energy not needed for competi- tion can go into reproduction, and so forth: there are trade-offs among the three state variables.

    Stearns, S.C. (1976). Life-history tactics: a review of the ideas. Quart. Rev. Biol. 51, 3-47: 15.


    Seed costs consequently vary from species to species, and tradeoffs between investment in seed size, defense, dispersal, and seed number are to be expected (Harper et al., 1970).

    Solbrig, O.T. (1976). On the relative advantages of cross- and self-fertilization. Ann. Missouri Bot. Garden 63, 262-276: 269.


    After the failure of part-by-part optimization, interaction is acknowledged via the dictum that an organism cannot optimize each part without imposing expenses on others. The notion of ‘trade-off’ is introduced, and organisms are interpreted as best compromises among competing demands. Thus, interaction among parts is retained completely within the adaptationist programme.

    Gould, S.J. & Lewontin, R.C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B 205, 581-598: 585.


    [A] clarification of the idea that natural selection is an improver is required. This is the idea of trade-offs. […] the idea is that large horns will be selectively advantageous if the overall benefits outweigh the costs, compared with the other characteristics that happen to be present in the population.

    Sober, E. (1984). The Nature of Selection: 175.