Are There Logical Limits to Self-Maximization?

Both biology and economics are in the “productivity selection” business. But self-interest in evolution differs greatly from self-interest in economics. Comparing them shows that excessive self-maximization has become a systemic risk.


Both biology and economics are in the “productivity selection” business. Comparing them yields lessons.

1. Economics and evolution have always exchanged ideas. Natural selection crystallized for Charles Darwin because of an essay on economics (Thomas Robert Malthus). More recently Richard Dawkins bolstered a “naturally” selfish economics via his (fallacy of composition committing) claim that everything that evolves “should be selfish."

2. Conventional economics presumes a) we’re rational and unlimitedly selfish, and b) those traits in markets create beneficial or optimal outcomes. Those are all testable and often false. Daniel Kahneman says it’s “self evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish.” His colleague Richard Thaler says economists model a “different species.”

3. Kahneman and Thaler’s great work creating behavioral economics hasn’t asked the next big question. What sort of outcomes arise when markets aggregate “cognitively biased” and commonly imprudent decisions?

4. Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy notes markets also suffer a composition fallacy, locally "rational" decisions don’t always aggregate to good outcomes, e.g. in situations with "Darwin’s Wedge dynamics" (see also spontaneous disorders). Others looking at such issues include complexity economics and evonomics.

5. Self-interest in evolution differs greatly from self-interest in economics. Comparing their limits and logical dependencies can reduce unnaturally selective thinking.

6. Appetites and capacities throughout biology are physiologically limited. Beyond some satiety level, more isn’t better — it’s often unhealthy, counterproductive and even toxic. By contrast, self-interest in economics is considered limitless. Every extra dollar is deemed better (a numerical illusion buried in the math). Unlimitedness is unnatural; it ignores reality’s limits and the foreseeable capacities of systems we depend on.

7. Evolutionary self-interest is mostly dumb. It leads predators to overhunt prey, destroying themselves, and their dumb self-maximizing genes. Somehow economic self-interest has become as dumb, often promoting systemically self-undermining “rationality” (e.g. Prisoner’s Dilemmas, “tragedy of the commons”).

8. Despite evolution being dumb and blind, we’ve evolved some degree of intelligent foresight — and should see the logic of an as yet unnamed universal principle: Nature and logic ultimately eliminate that which damages what it depends on.

9. Dawkins’s replicator vs. vehicle distinction — genes vs. bodies — can illuminate. Despite his view that genes (and all they build) are “selfish,” every “selfish” gene must also cooperate well with every other gene in the vehicle/body it depends on, or it harms its own survival chances.

10. That logic applies widely. We’ve been team hunters for 10,000 generations, ever since group hunting out-produced going solo. That higher productivity required being “ruthlessly cooperative” — punishing excessive self-interest that threatened group survival (see also “Golden Punishment Rule”). Likewise excessive self-maximization is a systemic risk to communities, cities (see Pericles), markets, economies, nations, the planet).

11. We’re the first species to know this. And to unwisely ignore it. Limits, foresight, self-deficiency, interdependent coordination, resource justice, and relational rationality are in all our nature. They should all be in our economics and our politics. And in our rational interests, rightly understood.

Economics need not be as dumb as trees. Nor as self-harming as over-hunters. Nor “cognitively unnatural.”

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Unraveling the mystery behind dogs' floppy ears

Dogs' floppy ears may be part of why they and other domesticated animals love humans so much.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Nearly all domestic animals share several key traits in addition to friendliness to humans, traits such as floppy ears, a spotted coat, a shorter snout, and so on.
  • Researchers have been puzzled as to why these traits keep showing up in disparate species, even when they aren't being bred for those qualities. This is known as "domestication syndrome."
  • Now, researchers are pointing to a group of a cells called neural crest cells as the key to understanding domestication syndrome.
Keep reading Show less

Russian reporters discover 101 'tortured' whales jammed in offshore pens

Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.

(VL.ru)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Russian news network discovers 101 black-market whales.
  • Orcas and belugas are seen crammed into tiny pens.
  • Marine parks continue to create a high-price demand for illegal captures.
Keep reading Show less

A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face."

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less