How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy

The flaws in the competition-is-good-for-you logic

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By Frans de Waal

The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole.

An avowed admirer of Richard Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution, Skilling mimicked natural selection by ranking his employees on a one-to-five scale representing the best (one) to the worst (five). Anyone with a ranking of five got axed, but not without first having been humiliated on a website featuring his or her portrait. Under this so-called ‘Rank & Yank’ policy, people proved perfectly willing to slit one another’s throats, resulting in a corporate atmosphere marked by appalling dishonesty within and ruthless exploitation outside the company.

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The deeper problem, however, was Skilling’s view of human nature. The book of nature is like the Bible: everyone reads into it what they like, from tolerance to intolerance and from altruism to greed. But it’s good to realise that, if biologists never stop talking about competition, this doesn’t mean that they advocate it, and if they call genes selfish, this doesn’t mean that genes actually are. Genes can’t be any more ‘selfish’ than a river can be ‘angry’ or sun rays ‘loving’. Genes are little chunks of DNA. At most, they are self-promoting, because successful genes help their carriers spread more copies of themselves.

Like many before him, Skilling had fallen hook, line and sinker for the selfish-gene metaphor, thinking that if our genes are selfish, then we must be selfish, too. He can be forgiven, however, because even if this is not what Dawkins meant, it is hard to separate the world of genes from the world of human psychology if our terminology deliberately conflates them.

Keeping these worlds apart is the greatest challenge for anyone interested in what evolution means for society. Since evolution advances by elimination, it is indeed a ruthless process. Yet its products don’t need to be ruthless at all. Many animals survive by being social and sticking together, which implies that they can’t follow the right-of-the-strongest principle to the letter: the strong need the weak. This applies equally to our own species, at least if we give humans a chance to express their cooperative side. Like Skilling, too many economists and politicians ignore and suppress this side. They model human society on the perpetual struggle that they believe exists in nature, which is actually no more than a projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.

I look at this issue as a biologist and primatologist. One may feel that a biologist should not stick his nose into public policy debates, but since biology is already part of it, it is hard to stay on the sidelines. Lovers of open competition can’t resist invoking evolution. The e-word even slipped into the infamous ‘greed speech’ of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that ‘greed’ – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

The evolutionary spirit? In the social sciences, human nature is typified by the old Hobbesian proverb Homo homini lupus (‘Man is wolf to man’), a questionable statement about our own species based on false assumptions about another species. A biologist exploring the interaction between society and human nature isn’t doing anything new. The only difference is that, instead of trying to justify a particular ideological framework, the biologist has an actual interest in the question of what human nature is and where it came from. Is the evolutionary spirit really all about greed, as Gekko claimed, or is there more to it?

This line of thinking does not just come from fictional characters. Listen to David Brooks in a New York Times column that made fun of social government programmes: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.” Conservatives love to believe this, yet the supreme irony of this love affair with evolution is how little most of them care for the real thing.

In the 2008 presidential debate, no fewer than three Republican candidates raised their hand in response to the question: “Who doesn’t believe in evolution?” American conservatives are social Darwinists rather than real Darwinists. Social Darwinism argues against helping the sick and poor, since nature intends them either to survive on their own or perish. Too bad if some people have no health insurance, so the argument goes, so long as those who can afford it do. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona went one step further – causing an outcry in the media and protests in his home state – by voting against coverage of maternity care. He himself had never had any need for it, he explained.

The competition-is-good-for-you logic has been extraordinarily popular ever since Reagan and Thatcher assured us that the free market would take care of all of our problems. Since the economic meltdown, this view is obviously not so hot anymore. The logic may have been great, but its connection to reality was poor. What the free-marketeers missed was the intensely social nature of our species. They like to present each individual as an island, but pure individualism is not what we have been designed for. Empathy and solidarity are part of our evolution – not just a recent part, but age-old capacities that we share with other mammals.

Many great social advances – democracy, equal rights, social security – have come about through what used to be called ‘fellow feeling’. The French revolutionaries chanted of fraternité, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy and Theodore Roosevelt glowingly spoke of fellow feeling as “the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life”.

The ending of slavery is particularly instructive. On his trips to the south, Lincoln had seen shackled slaves, an image that kept haunting him, as he wrote to a friend. Such feelings motivated him and many others to fight slavery. Or take the current US healthcare debate, in which empathy plays a prominent role, influencing the way in which we respond to the misery of people who have been turned away by the system or lost their insurance. Consider the term itself – it is not called health ‘business’ but health ‘care’, thus stressing human concern for others.

Moral primates?

Human nature obviously can’t be understood in isolation from the rest of nature, and this is where biology comes in. If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the past few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Superior our intellect may be, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives. Like us, they strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cellphones and fly aeroplanes, but our psychological make-up is essentially that of a social primate.

Without claiming other primates as moral beings, it is not hard to recognise the pillars of morality in their behaviour. These pillars are summed up in our golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” brings together empathy (attention to others’ feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well). Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity – tendencies found in our fellow primates.

After one chimpanzee has been attacked by another, for example, a bystander will go over to embrace the victim gently until he or she stops yelping. The tendency to console is so strong that Nadia Kohts, a Russian scientist who raised a juvenile chimpanzee a century ago, said that if her charge had escaped to the roof of her house, there was only one way to get him down. Holding out food would not do the trick; the only way would be for her to sit down and sob, as if she were in pain. The young ape would rush down from the roof to put an arm around her. The empathy of our closest relative exceeds its desire for a banana.

Consolation has been studied extensively based on hundreds of cases, as it is a common, predictable behaviour among apes. Similarly, reciprocity is visible when chimpanzees share food specifically with those who have recently groomed them or supported them in power struggles. Sex is often part of the mix. Wild males have been observed to take great risk raiding papaya plantations to obtain the delicious fruits for fertile females in return for copulation. Chimps know how to strike a deal.

There is also evidence for pro-social tendencies and a sense of fairness. Chimpanzees voluntarily open a door to give a companion access to food, and capuchin monkeys seek rewards for others even if they themselves gain nothing from it. We demonstrated this by placing two monkeys side by side: separate, but in view. One of them needed to barter with us using small plastic tokens. The critical test came when we offered them a choice between two differently coloured tokens with different meanings: one token was ‘selfish’, the other ‘pro-social’. If the bartering monkey picked the selfish token, it received a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner got nothing. The pro-social token, on the other hand, rewarded both monkeys equally at the same time. The monkeys developed an overwhelming preference for the pro-social token.

We repeated the procedure many times with different pairs of monkeys and different sets of tokens, and found that the monkeys kept picking the pro-social option. This was not based on fear of possible repercussions, because we found that the most dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) were in fact the most generous. More likely, helping others is self-rewarding in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

In other studies, primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others being rewarded with grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers and go on strike. The cucumber has become unpalatable simply as a result of seeing a companion get something better. I have to think of this reaction each time I hear criticism of the bonuses on Wall Street.

Don’t these primates show the first hints of a moral order? Many people, however, prefer their nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. There is never any doubt about continuity between humans and other animals with respect to negative behaviour: when humans maim and kill each other, we are quick to call them ‘animals’, but we prefer to claim noble traits for ourselves. When it comes to the study of human nature, however, this is a losing strategy because it excludes about half of our background. Short of divine intervention, this more attractive side of our behaviour is also the product of evolution, a view increasingly supported by animal research.

Everyone is familiar with the way mammals react to our emotions and the way we react to theirs. This creates the sort of bond that makes millions of us share our homes with cats and dogs rather than iguanas and turtles. The latter are just as easy to keep, yet lack the empathy that we need to get attached.

Animal studies into empathy are on the rise, including studies into how rodents are affected by the pain of others. Laboratory mice become more sensitive to pain once they have seen another mouse in pain. Pain contagion occurs between mice from the same home box, but not between mice that don’t know each other. This is a typical bias that is also true of human empathy: the closer we are to a person, and the more similar we are to them, the more easily empathy is aroused.

Empathy has its roots in basic body mimicry – not in the higher regions of imagination or in the ability to reconstruct consciously how we would feel if we were in someone else’s place. It began with the synchronisation of bodies: running when others run; laughing when others laugh; crying when others cry; or yawning when others yawn. Most of us have reached the incredibly advanced stage at which we yawn even at the mere mention of yawning, but this is only after lots of face-to-face experience.

Yawn contagion works in other species, too. At Kyoto University, investigators showed laboratory apes the videotaped yawns of wild chimps. Soon, the lab chimps were yawning like crazy. With our own chimps, we have gone one step further. Instead of showing them real chimps, we play three-dimensional animations of an ape-like head going through a yawn-like motion. In response to the animated yawns, our apes yawn with maximal opening of the mouth, eye-closing and head-rolling, as if they are going to fall asleep at any moment.

Yawn contagion reflects the power of unconscious synchrony, which is as deeply ingrained in us as it is in many other animals. Synchrony is expressed in the copying of small body movements, such as a yawn, but it also occurs on a larger scale. It is not hard to see its survival value. You’re in a flock of birds and one suddenly takes off. You have no time to figure out what’s going on, so you take off at the same instant. Otherwise, you may be lunch.

Mood contagion serves to coordinate activities, which is crucial for any travelling species (as most primates are). If my companions are feeding, I decide to do the same because, once they move off, my chance to forage will be gone. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone else is doing will lose out, just like the traveller who doesn’t go to the bathroom when the bus has stopped.

Social creatures

Natural selection has produced highly social and cooperative animals that rely on one another for survival. On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees in the forest are known to slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. So, why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is ample proof to the contrary?

Bad biology exerts an irresistible attraction. Those who think that competition is what life is all about, and who believe that it is desirable for the strong to survive at the expense of the weak, eagerly adopt Darwinism as a beautiful illustration of their ideology. They depict evolution – or at least their cardboard version of it – as almost heavenly. John D Rockefeller concluded that the growth of a large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God”, and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs – the biggest money-making machine in the world – recently depicted himself as merely “doing God’s work”.

We tend to think that the economy was killed by irresponsible risk taking, a lack of regulation or a bubbling housing market, but the problem goes deeper. Those were just the little aeroplanes circling King Kong’s head (“Oh no, it wasn’t the aeroplanes. ’Twas beauty killed the beast”). The ultimate flaw was the lure of bad biology, which resulted in a gross simplification of human nature. Confusion between how natural selection operates and what kind of creatures it has produced has led to a denial of what binds people together. Society itself has been seen as an illusion. As Margaret Thatcher put it: “There is no such thing as society – there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Economists should reread the work of their father figure, Adam Smith, who saw society as a huge machine. Its wheels are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith saw honesty, morality, sympathy and justice as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. His views were based on our being a social species, born in a community with responsibilities towards the community.

Instead of falling for false ideas about nature, why not pay attention to what we actually know about human nature and the behaviour of our near relatives? The message from biology is that we are group animals: intensely social, interested in fairness and cooperative enough to have taken over the world. Our great strength is precisely our ability to overcome competition. Why not design society such that this strength is expressed at every level?

Rather than pitting individuals against each other, society needs to stress mutual dependencies. This could be seen in the recent healthcare debate in the United States, where politicians played the shared-interest card by pointing out how much everybody (including the well-to-do) would lose if the nation failed to change the system, and where President Obama played the social responsibility card by calling the need for change “a core ethical and moral obligation”. Money-making cannot be allowed to become the be-all and end-all of society.

And for those who keep looking to biology for an answer, the fundamental yet rarely asked question is why natural selection designed our brains so that we’re in tune with our fellow human beings and feel distress at their distress, and pleasure at their pleasure. If the exploitation of others were all that mattered, evolution should never have got into the empathy business. But it did, and the political and economic elites had better grasp that in a hurry.

Originally published here.

2016 May 13

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  • Ewen Hardie

    Thank you for this. I often make this point with my high school biology students. It has long been a source of irritation to me that Darwin’s beautiful idea has been used as justification for people treating each another appallingly. Evolution has produced so many wonderful examples of interdependence and symbiosis, many of which rely upon direct cooperation. You’ve illustrated this nicely and I’ll have some more examples to share with my students next time I’m on the subject. Cheers.

  • Duncan Cairncross

    To put this article on a more solid footing its well worth reading
    Ultrasociety –*Version*=1&*entries*=0

  • Merf56

    Excellent essay. Thank you.

  • Angela

    I am sorry, but to say that “In the social sciences, human nature is typified by the old Hobbesian proverb Homo homini lupus (‘Man is wolf to man’)” is completely wrong. This is almost diametrically opposed to social scientific thinking.

    • Yes. Once again we have another Evonomics piece full of straw men.

      Few actual business people view business essential element as competition, rather the driving question is: how can I get make more money– usually by getting selling more or making something more efficiently. Competition is an afterthought and one most business people would prefer not to deal with. Further, cooperation is a far bigger part of business than is competition, e.g. working with fellow employees and other firms in your supply chain.

      This is not because businesses have a great grasp of biology (maybe they don’t) but because these are the sorts of traits that are selected for by the market. Note that even with respect to (the author’s own charicatured description of) Enron, that firm is no longer with us. The market seems to have selected for other traits.

      • Hannes Radke

        All of these articles make sweeping generalizations. But I think it’s just to oppose the sweeping generalizations that came before them. It is an overreaction to overadjust thinking for an (neoliberal) ideology that went into overdrive.
        To say “the market has selected for other traits” is just as absurd a statement as every straw man generalization in this article. If you want to be as concrete as possible: the market is no physical entity. The “free market” concept is an ideological utopy. The free market has no aim, no need, no will and no agency whatsoever, has never and will never exist in the form some seem to hope. It’s just an outdated and naive idea. Echoing it through such statements will not help to fight straw men of any kind.

        • To say “the market seems to have selected for other traits” does not imply that the market is a “physical entity” or has “agency” etc. It is an analog to the common phrasing that “evolution has selected” for certain traits. That phasing makes does not make any such implications either.

          The point was that Enron was a strange example because it collapsed of its own accord within the present system and is no longer around.

          • John M Legge

            Enron made a spectacular exit; but the life span of major US corporations judged by membership of the Dow Jones index, is falling. The disease that proved acute at Enron is widespread in its chronic form.

          • The average length of membership in the Dow 30 is not actually evidence of anything. You need a whole bunch of missing premises to get to a conclusion that it is evidence of more companies being like Enron.

          • John M Legge

            The fact that the average length of membership in the Dow is decreasing suggests that the managers of many large US companies are ignoring long term considerations in order to focus on the share price and quarterly returns. Enron was merely an extreme example of such a trend.

          • That is one possible reason, but without more that really doesn’t count as evidence, more likely is that there are a variety of different causes, e.g. you have a lot of churn in market cap, many new companies grew to large market caps, etc.

          • John M Legge

            Small companies only grow to challenge big ones when the big ones neglect innovation and marketing in order to maximise cash returns. When the big ones are prepared to spend enough to hold their position (like GE) they stay in the Dow. Small companies don’t challenge GE because it buys them up before they get to be serious competition.

          • charkee

            My past boss, a very disagreeable and universally despised person was bragging that he was making a killing with Enron stocks. I had some inside info that they were already bankrupt months before it hit the press. Do you think I told him? Nope. The evolution of that a**hole came back and bit him hard. Within weeks he was also fired. When it comes to evolution, they forget to take karma into account.

      • jayrayspicer

        DWAnderson, it’s not a straw man argument if lots of people believe it and use it as the basis for their actions (or think they do). And lots of influential people clearly believe this neoliberal nonsense and work diligently to implement and defend policy based on it. They campaign on it and give speeches promoting and defending it. You can’t shake a stick on the internet without neoliberal trolls crawling out of the woodwork to proclaim the coming libertarian every-man-for-himself utopia, if only the liberals would get out of the way.

        And you yourself seem to agree that competition is the most important element in business: “…the driving question is: how can I get make [sic] more money–usually by getting selling [sic] more or making something more efficiently.” Um, selling more or making something more efficiently *is* competition. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t support your straw man assertion.

        Many actual businesspeople are constantly driven by competitive notions. They (rightfully) consider innovation to be competition. They (wrongly) try to buy or bury the competition for fear that they won’t be able to out-innovate or out-execute it. They try (and usually succeed) to influence laws to limit the competition they fear. They try desperately to establish themselves as monopolies so they don’t have to worry about the competition. Moreover they institute competitive policies internally in a misguided attempt to spur innovation, and to decide who gets promoted and who gets fired, backbiting be damned.

        It’s certainly true that teamwork within firms gets a great deal of lip service, and that’s the obvious impetus for hiring employee #2 in the first place, but most of the pro-business politicking and policy-making is driven by the idea that competition is the most important economic consideration, and either needs to be spurred in the interest of innovation or deterred in the interests of monopolists. Social Darwinism is alive and well in the business and economic policy world.

        Well-refereed friendly competition between groups usefully drives innovation and efficiency. Competition uber alles is an economic and social disaster. As De Waal points out, it’s also a completely bogus reading of biological science.

        • I would simply say that we have had very different experiences with how people in businesses actually think. There is certainly some emphasis on competition per se, but I believe this piece exaggerates it.
          That being said, if you lump a desire to make a better product in with the competitive behavior attributed to Jeff Skilling, then this ceases to be a useful category for criticism. (And might be an appropriate category for many purposes.)

          • jayrayspicer

            Same thing, different magnitude. A breeze is nice. A hurricane is not. If you experience a breeze and assume that more must be better, you’re making the same mistake that Jeffrey Skilling made. Unfortunately, lots of people make this mistake, and push it as an all-encompassing life philosophy. Which of course leads people to take it too far: Athletes doping, politicians swift-boating, corporations buying their rivals instead of innovating, Wall Streeters peddling CDOs. Dog-eat-dog behavior is everywhere, and too many people think Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand are saints. That nonsense needs to be strenuously opposed. It’s the ideology of predators and psychopaths, and it’s dangerously rampant.

    • jenab6

      You’ll pardon me if I express disrespect for the degree to which “social science” is scientific. A lot of it seems to be leftist ideology with a scientific veneer, analogous with the way creationism is Christian fundamentalism with a scientific veneer.

      • Angela

        As a social scientist (and some of us are), I am inclined to agree with you that a lot of it is not what I would regard as scientific, but the point remains that I have yet to encounter any social scientist, of whatever stamp, who is Hobbesian!

  • Excellent debunking of misapplied metaphors of evolution. However I can’t go along with the logical leap from there that is implied, specifically that “conservatives are bad” and that the right way to organize society is by implication according to some sort of social approach. I live in Canada and very much appreciate our government mandated health-care system — it seems to work pretty well too as Canadians live longer than Americans! But magical thinking is the bane of not only the right . . .

  • Alê GM

    Whoever wrote this article has dramatically misunderstood what the phrase “selfish gene’ means.
    The idea of the ‘selfish gene’ is NOT that the selfish individuals are always the fittest, or that being selfish is the best way to get ahead.
    The selfish gene is just a way of explaining that genes that have the effect of increasing it’s own chance to replicate (therefore, genes that are ‘selfish’, figuratively speaking) are going to get more common in a population. But the gene’s effect may well be increasing altruistic or cooperative behaviour in their ‘host’ individuals.

    So the problem here is interpreting “selfish gene” as meaning “a gene for selfishness”. That is not what the phrase means, and Dawkins has clarified this hundreds of times over the last 40+ years.

    Dawkins wrote at length about how cooperation can arise from cold blind natural selection of ‘selfish genes’.

  • John M Legge

    Excellent article; one caveat: Dawkins called his popular book “The Selfish Gene” but one chapter was titled “Nice guys finish first”. He stressed the importance of cooperation from the start.

    • He has also remarked (sorry I do not have the reference to hand) that the book could equally well be titled “The Collaborative Gene”.

    • Frans de Waal

      This is partially correct. The selfish gene is a metaphor, but has proven to be a misleading one, and Dawkins himself has not helped by certain additions. In his book “The Selfish Gene,” after having explained at length that our genes know what is best for us, he reassured his readers that, in fact, we are welcome to chuck all of those genes out the window: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (Dawkins 1976: 215). The break with nature is obvious in this statement, as also stated in an interview in which he calls us “nicer than is good for our selfish genes,” and explicitly endorsed Huxley (a well recognized muddled thinker about evolution): “What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T.H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world.” In other words, Dawkins took his metaphor literally enough that he felt we needed to revolt against it, that it might lead us in the wrong direction as indeed it has done for many of his followers.

      • John M Legge

        I take my Dawkins with a strong shot of Kauffman. Characteristics are the result of the interaction of many genes, so the idea that a single gene promotes its own interests is, in general, false. If a point mutation is to increase the reproductive success of an organism it must do so as part of a complete genome. This means that gene variant “a” may increase reproductive success in lines with genome “A” but could well reduce it in lines with genome “B”.

        In the broader management context, attitudes and personality traits that are effective in one environment may be less so in another. The ability to stick with a repetitive task makes an employee effective on a production line but is not required in an IT design team.

        I have posted an extract from my student guide on “Managing Innovation” here:

  • Also
    see: “Sociobiology” (E.O.Wilson) the classical counterpoint about the
    crucial aspect of co-operation in evolution. As I often say: “I have my
    money and I have my car, so I don’t need you; and if we have a coinflict
    it is your fault”….(so I do not need to grow up emotionally) – the
    missing ground for our reciprocity is direct material interdependence
    which the consumer life removes….yet we still yearn for this
    reciprocity and belonging.

    • jayrayspicer

      Well, we still have reciprocity and material interdependence. It’s just not as direct as it used to be, so some people have a hard time seeing it.

      • I agree however I have learned over time that we don’t actually believe what we know intellectually until we experience it; nor do we act on it. Thus our governments are a reflection of ourselves. We don’t vote for people who give us bad news.

  • jenab6

    Quoted from article: “Many animals survive by being social and sticking together, which implies that they can’t follow the right-of-the-strongest principle to the letter: the strong need the weak. This applies equally to our own species, at least if we give humans a chance to express their cooperative side.”

    That statement generalizes too far. The strong don’t need the weak. Rather, the STRONGEST needs the help of those who are not quite so strong because there are things that nobody can do alone. Nobody needs weakness. Weakness is a flaw to be overcome, if one can. If he can’t, then nobody needs him.

    • ohminus

      Not really. “Weakness” is a situational characteristic. Being “weak” towards certain influences can actually make you stronger towards others.

  • Lyngvyst

    “Reagan and Thatcher assured us that the free market would take care of all of our problems. Since the economic meltdown, this view is obviously not so hot anymore” Hm, but this is not true. I think nobody (except lefties putting it into someone’s mouth) ever said that free market would take care of all our problems. This is simply not true. It has been just pointed out that the alternative to free markets is decisions of politicians who fail more often. This we see every day and every year. The economic meltdown is not the effect of free markets since we have less and less free markets actually – have you noticed the growing mountains of regulations and higher tax quota, possibly highest ever (meaning the politicians have more say in what will be spent and where?) How can you blame it on the free markets if there are none? Difficult to believe. To me, this is almost like saying that drought is caused by rain.

    • jayrayspicer

      Apart from maybe Sarbanes-Oxley, I’m not sure what new regulations are strangling the marketplace. If anything, Reagan and Thatcher ushered in an era of dangerous and destabilizing tax cuts and deregulation, convincing even many Democrats that taxes were too high and that we no longer needed Glass-Steagall and that NAFTA was the bees knees. Corporate taxes are as low as they’ve been in many decades. The IRS is so underfunded that tax evasion is a casual sport; trillions of dollars are stashed in offshore tax havens.
      And there are a great many people on the Interwebz who will loudly regale you with their fundamentalist belief that completely unfettered markets will lead to a libertarian utopia, the best of all possible worlds. Count yourself lucky if you have yet to encounter them.

    • ohminus

      “This we see every day and every year. ”

      Evidence? None. Quite the contrary.

      “The economic meltdown is not the effect of free markets since we have less and less free markets actually – have you noticed the growing mountains of regulations and higher tax quota, possibly highest ever (meaning the politicians have more say in what will be spent and where?) ”

      Of course not, that’s why it originated in countries with less regulations, whereas countries with more regulations chiefly suffered via the overall economic fallout, right?

      “How can you blame it on the free markets if there are none? Difficult to believe. To me, this is almost like saying that drought is caused by rain.”

      And to me, you’re an ideologist who is incapable of differentiated thinking and knows only black or white, and thus is disqualified from any credible analysis.

  • Indeed a useful essay.
    The author is a distinguished primatologist. I have however seen citations of
    work which argues that chimpanzee behaviour in the wild is less sociable than
    in resource rich ‘preservational’ environments (e.g. Pierce and White, 2006 Resource
    context contestability and emergent social structure: an empirical investigation
    of an evolutionary theory J. Organiz. Behav. 27, 221–239.

  • Matt Beaven

    I agree with much of what you state but I was a little disappointed by this comment:

    “American conservatives are social Darwinists rather than real Darwinists.”

    Phraseology like this creates a tribal us vs. them mentality and creates opportunity for self-described conservatives to oppose you. I view myself as a conservative and your idea of American conservativism is something quite foreign. I consider myself conservative because I believe that the institutions that were handed down by our forefathers continue to have value. These ideas and institutions that conservatives carry are a result of emergent selective adaptation, with less effective ideas and institutions dying or changing. That someone has more faith in what has worked before vs. what is novel surely does not mean that the poor should be left to die.

  • gene plichota

    authoritative, lucid, and convincing

  • Ti Ago

    This is EXTREME bullshit a really long text to say humans are inherently fraudulent being. First in a society with high visibility there is no long term benefit in fraud. But more importantly in a high regulated state-centric economic there is a lot more room for potential and actual fraud. Government only makes things worse, ALWAYS!

    • ohminus

      The only BS here is yours, I’m afraid. Totally aside from the fact that you evidently did not even read the text, your insistence that government only makes things worse and provides more room for potential and actual fraud is the only fraud obvious here. It’s a counterfactual claim by an ideological fanatic who ignores any data proving him wrong.

      Scandinavia and Germany, all highly regulated, all have a better ranking with Transparency International – and massively so – than the US.

      But I fully understand that fraud committed by a fanatical market fundamentalist like you doesn’t count as “fraud”, right? After all, dishonesty is perfectly ok when done for the right(TM) cause.

  • No More Neos

    Socialism for the 1%, rugged individualism for everyone else. Their understanding of empathy is very myopic and only applies to their inner circle. The market society model has failed, dramatically, largely because the markets are anything but freely competitive.

    “Does it make sense to run government like a business? The short answer is no. Bear in mind, first, that “efficiency” in the private sector means profit. Hence, to ask that the government be run like a business is tantamount to asking that the government turn a profit.

    The problem in a nutshell, is that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.”

  • No More Neos

    The technocrats are obsessed with algorithm-driven policies. But the fact is that even John Nash, inventor of the game theory known as “Fuck You, Buddy”, which was used as the basis of neoliberal ideology, eventually came to the conclusion later in life that his conclusions were totally wrong. After five decades of its implementation, the world whole-heartedly agrees.

    Former World Bank Staffer Explains How Neoliberalism Is Destroying The World

    More destructive than bombs, money has become the weapon of choice for the global elite, for the hidden hand of finance can plunder and conquer entire nations, assimilate whole cultures, exploit resources and rape the earth while forcing billions into poverty, all with the surprising stealth of pen-strokes and business contracts.

    Neoliberalism is the economic and political philosophic driving force in the world today. It suggests that human progress is the result of competition, best expressed by an extremist version of unfettered capitalism, where privatization of profits and socialization of losses are acceptable ethics, regardless of human and environmental costs incurred along the way.

    Neoliberalism is the killer plague of the 21st century. NEOLIBERALISM IS ECONOMIC FASCISM. It is a criminal doctrine. Globalized neoliberalism privatizes public goods for private profit. Neoliberalism led by Washington with the shameful complicity of Europe has in the last fifteen years killed between 12 and 15 million people by wars, famine, deprived health services… forced refugees. Today a small world elite of corporate and Wall Street CEOs and selected politicians call the shots. ~ Peter Koenig

  • Andy White

    Biological life is SYMBIOTIC by nature, in the natural world PARASITES are few and far between….

    When it comes to biology and economics its the desperation of human parasites to push the beliefs that lies at the heart of economic woes, and the destruction we are unleashing as we rashly rush to meet ideological beliefs and push to the sidelines the concerns and practices of those who live closet to the land and the sea.

    Its also worth noting we should be cautious about taking advice from anyone who pushes their ideals ahead of a considered understanding and relationship with the natural world.

    Nature is neither dystopia or utopia…. and economic systems need to be considered with pragmatic utility, and with an understanding of how technology is usurping biological models……

    The moral justification has never been so onerous or dangerous and the role of elites in society in need of reform….. The chattering classes are burgeoning tumour…

  • Part of the picture, and many of the issues raised here by others like DWAnderson, No More Neos, Matt Beaven and others are valid enough in a sense.

    Selfish Gene remains the only book I have ever read cover to cover twice in one day, which I did in 1978. It was and is that profound to me.
    It was the first and best account I have found of the evolution of cooperation, and the profound and complex roles of cooperation in the emergence of complexity, and the profound uncertainty that comes with complex systems.

    Applying that way of look at and thinking about recursively more abstract systems has been fascinating.

    Looking at how human beings develop as individuals, both physically and intellectually, from simplicity to complexity, and in both cases from profoundly complex starting points.
    A baby may be simple in comparison to an adult, but it is still a profoundly complex assemblage of cells, with many levels of complex control systems maintaining its existence.
    It gets born into and implicitly absorbs cultural constructs which have evolved over deep time (hundreds of thousands of years), and contain many subconscious levels of embodied knowledge and wisdom.

    Our intellectual understanding of our own complexity lags far behind our physical manifestation of that complexity in the ways we act in our lives.

    When one puts in the decades of study and experience required to gain some beginnings of a comprehension of uncertainty, logic, mathematics, cosmology, geology, chemistry, biochemistry, complexity, computation, communication, strategy, etc, one starts to see the recursive role of cooperation in evolutionary emergence of new levels of complexity.

    And when one can see the different sorts of environments our ancestors have had to survive in then it is no surprise that we contain vast suites of behavioural systems that are very context sensitive in their expression.

    Yes we can be (and are) the most cooperative species we know of, provided there is enough for everyone and provided we see social justice in action.
    And we can all compete for survival if that seems necessary, and punish transgressors if that feels appropriate.

    What some are starting to wake up to, is that promoting conditions that force most into conditions of competitive survival can unleash deep seated drives to destroy the perceived source of such social injustice, and that such forces are an existential risk to all.

    We have the technical capacity to deliver a world where every individual has the material goods and services, and the social freedom, to do whatever they responsibly choose; and that word “responsibly” is key.

    We have to acknowledge the reality of complexity, that complex systems require boundaries.
    It is our cell walls that give our cells form. Without cell walls there would be only ocean.

    And our cell walls are not hard and impervious, they are flexible and selectively permeable, sometimes with active transport. Complex systems require complex boundaries. Hard impervious walls are not a useful response to complexity.

    Our neural networks have the characteristic of seeking simplicity, particularly when under stress, but too much simplicity is actually an existential risk in a world that actually has profound levels of complexity.

    We live in times of exponential change.
    Our technology now gives us the ability to fully automate the production and delivery of a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services.
    And we did not culturally evolve in such a world.
    Our recent cultural evolution has been in a world dominated by scarcity.
    We used markets as a place to exchange things which we had in relative abundance for things that were scarce for us.
    The abstract notion of money as a store of value worked for us in that reality. It helped. It was a useful myth.
    Division of labour led to increases in productivity and increasing wealth.

    Now things are changing fundamentally.

    Fully automated systems allow us to deliver universal abundance.
    Universal abundance always has zero value in a market.
    So universal abundance destroys the abstract notion of market value (money), reduces profit.

    Automation and market value are now at the point of being fundamentally antagonistic.

    In the search for simple answers, people resort to demonising those with different ideas.

    That cannot help.

    It is not a viable approach, however emotionally appealing it may be.

    Our reality demands that we understand evolution.
    It demands that we accept the complexity present, and the need for diversity and cooperation.

    Failure to accept any of those realities will produce risk, and at the extremes that risk is existential for all of us.

    We live in the most profoundly complex and rapidly changing times this world has yet experienced.

    From the 43 years I have been investigating the question “what sort of social, political and technical institutions are required to allow potentially very long lived individuals to have a reasonable probability of actually living a very long time?” I am now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the answer to that question lies in accepting two fundamental values – with both the rights and responsibilities that are embodied in them:

    1/ A universal respect for sapient life (human and non-human, biological and non-biological); and
    2/ A universal respect for the liberty of all sapient individuals (acknowledging that such liberty has boundaries required to deliver life and liberty to all, and that such boundaries will be ever evolving in constantly evolving complex systems with ever emergent new levels of complexity and experience).

    In practice that means being aware of the needs of living ecosystems and of diverse and rapidly changing cultures.

    And part of that is acknowledging that as conscious human beings, we have no direct access to reality, and the reality of our conscious experience seems (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to be a subconsciously created model of reality that is instantiate by a mix of genetic and cultural constructs, as mediated by our physical experience in reality and our conscious (and subconscious) experience in the model.
    We are in part entities of culture and habit, and in part creative being capable of choice and creativity beyond anything in our past.

    There can be no certainty in such a reality.

    The illusion of Truth and certainty that children must begin with, must be given up as adults, for acceptance of the uncertainty of living in a reality that seems to be a balance between order and chaos at every level of existence.

    Too much order, and we experience boredom.
    Too much chaos, and we experience anxiety.

    Where we each place that border, in different contexts, will be a profoundly complex function involving our levels of understanding, experience, culture, biology and choice.

    The world beyond money and markets is a world of complexity beyond imagining.
    That complexity must be accepted, even as it must be accepted that it cannot be fully understood.

    And in the sense of strategic responses appropriate, it is clear that cooperation is the only response that offers a reasonable probability of survival. And within that fundamentally cooperative context, we can find creative outlets for our competitive aspects. And having written that – I’m off to play golf 😉

    • Liz Connor

      So, Ted, I gather that for you the trouble with Dawkins’ famous first book is that not enough people have actually read it.
      Well, I know that I was sufficiently put off by the title that I didn’t bother to pick it up, being much more inspired by Lynn Margulis’ concept of symbiosis, or more accurately, ‘mutualistic symbiosis’, where organisms living together both benefit from their relationship.
      I know that Dawkins has subsequently regretted the title, but I don’t think he has ever really acknowledged (or perhaps even realised) that scientists who seek to be public intellectuals should be decidedly more circumspect with their book titles, as they should also be with their ventures into attacking specific religions or religion in general.
      As a neo-Darwinist, he should have learnt from social Darwinism’s appalling distortion of the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’, how dangerous over-simplification and reductionism can be.
      And so I’m not appeased by discovering that his book apparently explores the importance of cooperation in evolution. I think the way that he behaves in public debate makes it clear that he is driven more by competition than by cooperation.
      I can only hope against hope that you play golf in a cooperative way . . . 🙂

      • That most haven’t read it is a big part of the problem.
        Richard said he agreed to the name his publisher suggested.

        I do most things in a cooperative manner Liz.

        Richard and I have very different approaches. I think I have gone beyond his level of understanding, and I will be forever grateful to him for giving me the tools to do that.

        I like many aspects of the approach to cultural evolution that Jordan Petersen takes.

        • Liz Connor

          I’ve now dipped my toe into Jordan Peterson’s theories online and I like what this article says about his thoughts on the power of myth:

          I’m not so sure about what it outlines as his theories on gender – so I may need to do more exploration of his actual writings. Thanks for the prompt.

          • Hi LIz,
            Might be a personal thing, but I tend to get more information by watching someone speak (though written word is next best).
            This series is worth a look.

            And me being me, I think Jordan makes a few errors, and he has some very powerful and useful concepts.

          • Liz Connor

            Wow. That’s quite a viewing list! I prefer videos too, but usually only when I’ve committed myself to explore someone’s ideas further. At first glance he seems to be rather a Jungian – which is OK by me. So I’ll take a look, thanks.

  • Macrocompassion

    This is the answer to a famous stanza (LV) of Tennyson (from In Meroriam A.H.H.) who asks:

    “Are God and Nature then at strife,
    That nature leads so evil dreams?
    So careful of the type she seems
    So careless of the single life.”

    In other words, it cuts both ways.

  • Alvaro Caso

    One minor point: Equating morality with the golden rule and finding its roots in the social behaviour of primates is bland. Surely social behaviour is shared with many species of primates and that is all that is needed for this article. Leave morality out of it; it is a different sort of category

  • Kaslo

    And it’s not just bad biology influencing economics, it’s also bad physics, or a kind of physics envy. See Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn.