The Abuse Of Evolution

Why we should stop applying the term to the marketplace

There is much about evolution we don’t understand. As Stuart Kauffman points out in his wonderful (if sometimes frustrating) book Investigations, we all think we know how things change and modify themselves and their descendants in response to the environment, but we really don’t. And as the growing field of epigenetics is making clear, the interaction between a single organism, its genes, cohabitants, family, and environment, is not straightforward at all. One thing that’s clear is that evolution is highly nonlinear. Patterns come and go; species become more, then less, then more complex. Bilateral symmetry becomes a norm, but is thrown away as soon as something else makes more sense (just ask the flounder).

Nature has habits, not rules. It has no definite direction. We are not “evolving into” a “more advanced” species. For all our vaunted technology and our (sometimes justified) pride in our conquest of nature, a tiny colony of bacteria in our gut — not even visible to the naked eye, fairly “dumb” and unaware by our standards — can render us absolutely incapable of getting up in the morning. Our microbiome sustains us, the sun — which has been around a lot longer than us — keeps us all going, and the universe as a whole keeps certain critical constants together so we don’t fly apart. The world, and the process of evolution, is beyond our control.

The marketplace, on the other hand, is entirely within our control. Not within any one person’s grasp, perhaps, but it’s certainly within our collective set of laws, customs, informal agreements, transactions, and exchanges of goods that constitute this thing we call the marketplace. The price of gold is the result of billions of decisions that are made across the globe. The setting of value is a deliberate act.

This is key. The market has a direction, and can be skewed to move in one way or another. As is probably obvious to most of you by now, the market has been planned, and greased, to extract resources from the poor and middle class (and their land), and use their labor to turn these resources into goods and services. These goods are then sold back to the same class (and some of the wealthy) at a profit. The profit is then deposited into the bank accounts of the rich and their master servants, the corporations. These entities then use the wealth for various things, including building interest (wealth accumulating wealth without any actual labor involved).

Because this process happens in such a complex way — beyond the grasp of even its beneficiaries — we tend to think of it as a natural phenomenon. We look for metaphors, and evolution springs to mind. We cherry-pick Darwin, citing “competition” and “survival of the fittest” as reasons for one person’s or company’s success. We talk about predator and prey relationships, how we should emulate nature’s apparent lack of morality and “free the markets” from constraints, and generally think of “economic growth” as some kind of indicator of “progress.”

Now, the truth is that there has been progress — for some people. It’s true that many people in the developed nations have access to electricity, water, and certain kinds of goods that their great-grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of. But is that a real mark of progress, if they’re missing out on the bigger accumulation of wealth? Is it progress when people in other parts of the world take on dangerous, low-paying jobs to mine precious resources, so we can have our trinkets? That one way of life has to be destroyed so another group can enjoy theirs?

We ignore or downplay the fact that evolution also uses cooperation, constraints, and constant reassessment. The fungi, viruses, bacteria, and protists that cling to every part of my skin and gut, are all networked together on some level or another, and communicate with each other and my body. They keep me healthy and help get rid of “bad” bacteria, and in exchange get a place to live and food to eat. We’ve evolved together. Mitochondria and cells, flowers and bees, aphids and ants, fungi and algae, mountain streams and temperate forests, trees and tree frogs — the level of cooperation within and between organisms and biospheres is so huge that, like the market, it’s invisible to us. It even extends beyond the boundary of life. Prairies and forests need periodic brush fires to clear out the deadwood and help prepare the soil for new growth. Open your mouth, and you’ll see stones inside, evolved to make it possible to break down your food.

Constraints matter, too. There is no “free market” in nature. Every design pattern costs. Our shorter hips allow us to stand upright (freeing our hands and enabling us to see further), and our bigger heads allow more space for a bigger brain. But they also make childbirth more difficult. We can sweat more efficiently than other creatures, which allows us to run for longer periods, but we’re not nearly as fast as other species. Insects are incredibly efficient and hardy,but their chitinous exoskeleton makes growth more difficult. Trees trade mobility in for long life spans.

But these same constraints are what make changes possible. Organisms shed or deprecate behaviors and genes that aren’t working anymore. They come up with approaches to survival that weren’t thought of before. All the levels of the ecosphere talk to each other, experiment with strategies, and come up with solutions.

The market may mimic aspects of evolution, but it’s an incomplete and pale imitation at best. Both are complex phenomena, and some of the tools we use to understand them seem to come up with similar results. And it’s tempting to transplant ideas from one to the other.

But when we do so we end up with a “just-so” story about how our society works, a “natural order” version of reality. This is not the way towards a sustainable future, where we take as “natural” the idea that material, energy and sweat from the many should get siphoned off to provide for the few.

What we need is a better way of thinking about the marketplace, a way of figuring out how to choose a better strategy to distribute goods and services to everyone. The first step is to stop thinking of the marketplace as an example, extension, or pinnacle of evolution, and start taking it for what it is: something we build and participate in. Something we can change — perhaps into a process that actually resembles evolution in all its glory.

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