The Science is Clear. The Economy Is an Organism

When we pretend homo economicus is real

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By David Sloan Wilson

Just as Ronald Reagan rode tall on his horse in one western movie after another before entering politics, a fictional character named Homo economicus has been riding the economic range for decades, captivating ever larger audiences. The problem is, when we pretend that the story enacted by Homo economicus is real, it causes us all to ride off a cliff, as I recount in a previous essay titled “Change the Story. Survival of the Fairest Companies”.

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Can a story really be so powerful that it overrides experience, scientific evidence, logic, and common sense? Of course it can, as Eric Hoffer showed us long ago in his book The True Believer. The problem is to spot the stories told by true believers and avoid the temptation of true belief in ourselves. Some cases are easy to spot, such as religious zealotry, but others do a better job of masquerading as reality. The story enacted by Homo economicus is an example of such a stealth religion. Theologian Harvey Cox nailed it in his 1990 Atlantic Monthly article titled The Market as God, which begins this way:

“A few years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead, I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar.”

The True in True Believer refers to a willingness to stick to a given belief to the bitter end, but the same word has two other meanings. A belief can be true when it corresponds to factual reality, as in a scientific truth. A belief can also be true when it leads to a desired outcome, in which case we call it realistic. Let’s call a belief that is true in all three senses a Triple T Belief. It is scientifically correct, causes us to thrive as human beings, and is so compelling that we stick with it through thick and thin. That’s a form of True Belief worth wanting.

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Stories are what make any given belief compelling—the third T. The reason that Ayn Rand remains a household word is because she made a bunch of arcane ideas come to life through stories. Likewise, what is remembered and rehearsed about historical figures such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek bears very little resemblance to the real people and their ideas. They have been rendered into fictional characters enacting dramas that help us make sense of the world and ultimately to motivate action. Too bad that these stories only deliver on the third T and not the other two.

I believe that a story centered on the fact that the economy is an organism can deliver on all three T’s. First, it is scientifically true. Everything that we call an organism today is a highly regulated society of lower-level units that once led more fractious lives. In fact, the battle between prosocial and antisocial behaviors still takes place within our bodies (e.g., cancer) and will never be entirely won. The best organized animal societies such as beehives, ant colonies, and termite mounds truly deserve to be called superorganisms—and that includes our own societies, as E.O. Wilson rightly stresses in his book The Social Conquest of Earth. Human societies (including but not restricted to economies) have been metaphorically compared to single organisms since antiquity, but now the comparison can be said to be scientifically true—the first T.

Second, acting upon the concept of the economy as an organism is likely to lead to far more intelligent and sustainable practices than the story enacted by Homo economicus. Key concepts such as “regulation”, “self-organization”, “adaptation” and “selection” are seen in a new light. The unregulated pursuit of self-interest by lower-level units such as individuals and corporations becomes obviously cancerous for the welfare of the whole. At the same time, the concept of society as an organism can lead in nightmarish directions. It’s good to be part of something larger than ourselves in some ways, but as individuals we don’t want to become mindless and expendable workers, which is what happens in some animal societies and could happen in human society if we aren’t careful. The second T requires knowing what to avoid as well as what to embrace.

Third, the concept of society as an organism (again, including but not restricted to economies) functions well as a story that anyone can understand. Christians have been telling each other the story for millennia—the Body of the Church, governed by Christ. Beehives are pictured on road signs in Utah because the Mormons, following a long Christian tradition, admire the way that bees work tirelessly for their groups. The word corporation is derived from the Latin word for body (corpus). Futurists wax poetic about global consciousness and the planetary brain. The story can have a happy or tragic ending, as I have already stressed, but in both cases it is easy to make the concept of society as an organism come to life in the mind of the average human, which is the power of story.

A few authors are beginning to tell the story of modern economies as organisms, along with related comparisons such as ecosystems and gardens. Examples include Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, George Cooper’s Money, Blood, and Revolution, Victor Hwang’s The Rainforest, and Howard Bloom’s Global Brain. With due respect to these authors, their handling of the concept is still largely metaphorical and doesn’t make full use of the scientific foundation that now exists for the concept of society as an organism (the first T) and its application to modern economics (the second T). This is not surprising, because the first two T’s are very new and still in their formative stages. “The Economy is an Organism” as a Triple T belief is still a work in progress, requiring a collaboration between scientists, policy experts, and storytellers. It is our best shot at a story with a happy ending.

The following books and articles begin to provide the scientific foundation for the concept of an economy as an organism (the first T) and its practical applications (the second T).

Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications; 1 edition.

Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.

Corning, P. (2008). Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gowdy, J., & Krall, L. (2015). The economic origins of ultrasociality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1–63.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Rightious Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Maynard Smith, J., & Szathmary, E. (1995). The major transitions in evolution. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Maynard Smith, J., & Szathmary, E. (1999). The origins of life: from the birth of life to the origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Padgett, W., & Powell, J. (2012). The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.

Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. M. (2014). Human ultrasociality and the invisible hand: foundational developments in evolutionary science alter a foundational concept in economics. Journal of Bioeconomics, 17(1), 37–52.

Wilson, E. O. (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Norton.

2015 October 20

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