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.

Higher ed isn’t immune to COVID-19, but the crisis will make it stronger

The pandemic reminds us that our higher education system, with all its flaws, remains a key part of our strategic reserve.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • America's higher education system is under great scrutiny as it adapts to a remote-learning world. These criticisms will only make higher ed more innovative.
  • While there are flaws in the system and great challenges ahead, higher education has adapted quickly to allow students to continue learning. John Katzman, CEO of online learning organization Noodle Partners, believes this is cause for optimism not negativity.
  • Universities are pillars of scientific research on the COVID-19 frontlines, they bring facts in times of uncertainty and fake news, and, in a bad economy, education is a personal floatation device.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

Should churches be considered essential businesses?

A debate is raging inside and outside of churches.

Demonstrators holding signs demanding their church to reopen, protest during a rally to re-open California and against Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020 in San Diego, California.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images
Culture & Religion
  • Over 1,200 pastors in California claim they're opening their churches this week against state orders.
  • While church leaders demand independence from governmental oversight, 9,000 Catholic churches have received small business loans.
  • A number of re-opened churches shut back down after members and clergy became infected with the novel coronavirus.
Keep reading Show less

What can your microwave tell you about your health?

An MIT system uses wireless signals to measure in-home appliance usage to better understand health tendencies.

John Moore/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

For many of us, our microwaves and dishwashers aren't the first thing that come to mind when trying to glean health information, beyond that we should (maybe) lay off the Hot Pockets and empty the dishes in a timely way.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…