Economics Needs 'Inclusive Fitness'

Our unique capacities were created by a major transition in evolution, which built a need for teamwork and inclusive economics deep into our nature. But many economists — quite unnaturally — exclude its logic from their ideas. 


This is diablog 6 between David Sloan Wilson (DSW, head of The Evolution Institute and author of Does Altruism Exist?) and me (JB).

1. JB: You’ve called teamwork humanity’s “signature adaptation.” But you’ve also said that in evolution “selfishness beats altruism within groups.” Let’s examine those statements alongside Christopher Boehm’s work on egalitarian paleo-economics.

2. DSW: Christopher Boehm is a major architect of the new evolutionary synthesis that my work also represents. He posits a shift in the balance of power whereby would-be subordinates can suppress wannabe dominants (“reverse dominance”). Once it becomes difficult to succeed at the expense of teammates, succeeding as a group (teamwork) becomes the only option.

3. DSW: In multilevel selection terms, disruptive within-group selection is suppressed so that between-group selection becomes the primary evolutionary force. But the motivations that evolve from such a process need not look altruistic. A person can view teamwork as a form of selfishness, caring only about his or her share of team gains or the public good that is created. Mapping altruism defined in terms of motivations onto altruism defined in terms of action is complex (see Does Altruism Exist? Chapter 5 Psychological Altruism).

4. DSW: The conditions for the genetic evolution of human teamwork still shape teamwork in modern-day groups. In other words, if a balance of power doesn’t exist, then at least some group members are likely to adopt disruptive self-serving behaviors. Teamwork requires social control, for us no less than for our distant ancestors.

5. JB: Yes, a balance of powers, or balance of interests, is key. It means certain kinds of selfishness don’t win in human groups (if they’re to be sustainable). It’s useful to distinguish selfishness that’s group-harming from selfishness that’s not (see Two Kinds of Success).

6. JB: Either group-disrupting selfishness is suppressed (policed, punished), or the group weakens itself. And groups that don’t prevent “parasitic” self-maximization perish sooner.

7. JB: You’ve called human cooperativeness the latest major evolutionary transition. We’ve evolved to be uniquely dependent on non-kin cooperation in teams, and that complicates simple “selfishness vs. altruism” thinking. Benefitting the team whose survival is necessary to your own can have both selfish and altruistic aspects. And group-harming self-maximization can be self-undermining.

8. JB: Our interests often aren’t easily disentangled from the interests of others. It’s a common error to see concern about the interests of others as “niceness.” But collective survival requires teams with “ruthlessly cooperative” rule enforcement (see Golden Punishment Rule).

9. JB: Evolutionists understand how genetic relationships complicate selfishness. For example, “kin selection” and “inclusive fitness,” explain altruism toward genetic relatives. Perhaps our innate need for teamwork creates a non-genetic equivalent, a kind of economic inclusive fitness. Division of labor needs viable others to collaborate with, so our interests logically include the interests of those significant others.

Inclusive economics is in our nature. But economists often — unnaturally — exclude its logic.

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) evolution’s score keeping (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, (5) and how division of labor complications.

For the next post in this diablog series, click here (Needism... The 15-Word Fix for Tragically Misguided Logic).

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) how evolution keeps score (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, how division of labor complicates survival trade-offs (5), Paleo-Economics Shaped Our Moralities (6). 

 

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

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less