On Darwinian Economics

Nothing is more American than the economy. It’s our protestant work ethic that sets us apart from those loligagging Europeans. It’s our free market that has transformed the world into the rich and prosperous place we live in today.

When describing the Free Market, Darwin is often invoked- even if indirectly. “The strong will survive,” “Competition between firms increases quality and is good for the consumer.” These are essentially evolutionary ideas applied to the market. No surprise since we all want a world view that describes all the various confusing and complex systems we live in. If evolutionary biology is good enough for nature, it’s good enough for the market and mankind which after-all are facets of nature.

So we’re done here right? The free-market Republicans are correct and we should cut government and let the market self-regulate. Right? Right?

Um, well, not exactly. It’s great to apply our understanding of natural science to social science, but doing so doesn’t close the case on a free, unregulated market. Infact, a close enough study of evolutionary history on this planet would suggest quite the opposite.

Any decent biology student is familiar (if not by name) with the Proterazoic Eon. This is the time in earth’s evolutionary history when simple heterotrophs ran into a wall. Heterotrophs are organisms that need to eat to survive (like mammals, reptiles, insects, etc), in contrast to Autotrophs which can produce their own food (plants). In the Proterazoic Eon, the heterotrophs, which had been dividing without any inhibition, ran out of food and changed the atmosphere significantly enough to cause mas die-offs. They grew hungry and sick on their own poisoned atmosphere.

Enter plants – or at least the first autotrophs. They evolved to use the CO2 in the atmosphere (that the heterotrophs had created so much of) and to combine it with sunlight in a process that allowed them to generate their own food. The heterotrophs were able too feed off the autotrophs, who fixed the atmosphere, and life went on to experience the Cambrian explosion, giant fish, dinosaurs, jurrasic park, etc.

If you’ve followed along this long, you probably already see the relevance to our predicament today. Man is a heterotroph, and just like his single-celled ancestors before him, he is dividing out of control and consuming all the resources on his planet while changing the atmosphere in ways that are poisonous to himself. This is simple biology- all heterotrophic life forms do it. Put flys in a closed jar with a piece of meat. They’ll eat the meat, lay eggs, multiply into 10x the flies you had originally, and then all die because the food is gone.

Our free, unregulated market does mimic the natural world. It allows us to compete in our intrinsic heterotrophic fashion, until all the food is gone and we all fall down. The only way to solve the problem is to become autotrophs. Que, green revolution and mankind’s very own version of the Cambrian explosion.

What does this mean for the free market? Quite simply, it needs to evolve. Organisms evolve through DNA. Large cultural and social institutions like the economy evolve through laws. As human beings, we are blessed with foresight, science, the ability to communicate and spread ideas as fast as the speed of light. Modern man evolves through his behavior, not his biology, because behavior can change in a matter of months or years, biology takes generations. Even better, behavioral evolution can be predictive – we can respond to climate change before it actually happens. Biological adaptation would require a couple of generations of water-world before we developed gills.

That’s right, the free market DOES need to be regulated. In effect, we need to adapt through cultural evolution before mass die-offs and forced biological evolution. That doesn’t mean we take the competitive evolutionary nature out of the market – no no – here Schumpeter is quite correct, creative destruction is the heart of capitalism – our company’s should live and die based on their ability to serve the consumer. BUT the free market needs to evolve through laws. Consider this the new DNA in our market that turns us from Heterotrophs into Autotrophs, or in other words, from a self-destructive species into one that can take care of itself and thrive for years to come.

To the extent that the market is part of the Human Organism, it must support that organism’s health. Yes, the market economy is subservient to mankind, duh.

So, when you hear our politicians talking about the free market and implying that this means lower wages for the poor and more earth rape for years to come –  don’t think to yourself “jeeze I guess I can’t argue with the free market.” Think to yourself, “these chumps need to go back to high-school biology.” A little market regulation is precisely what Darwin himself would prescribe.

1 Comment

  1. Arun says:

    Good one.

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