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Daniel Goldman

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Is capitalism best understood in the context of evolutionary science?

There is much debate as to what economic system works the best. I argue that capitalism is a system that has co-evolved with humans to be the system that best fits our psychology and also best takes advantage of evolutionary dynamics.

Looking first at the "selfish gene" idea, we see that it makes sense for us to do what we can to increase our own reproductive odds or at least those who may be closely related to us. Conspicuous consumption, and the accumulation of a larger material inventory, gives us a way to increase our own reproductive odds. For more information on conspicuous consumption, watch the TEDxConcordia talk by Gad Saad, The Consuming Instinct.

Free market capitalism, through the use of voluntary transactions, gives us a way to manage resources, and accumulate material inventory, without the use of force. It is something we can utilize because we have a robust system of communication, an the ability to create a nearly limitless material inventory.

However, capitalism's advantages, from the view point of evolutionary science, do not end there. Capitalism is not a stagnant system. Indeed, we can look at businesses and living entities existing within an ecosystem: the free market. Therefore, rules that apply to the evolution of biological systems, should also apply to the evolution of market systems as well.


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  • Nov 19 2013: Actually, I think that there is little other than evolution which is best understood in that context. Evolution may provide a generalized analogy for many things, but the science of evolution is really only applicable to evolution.

    Capitalism, as with other overt human behaviors, is too subject to the kinds of sudden cataclysmic change that is anti-evolutionary. Scientist distinguish, for example, between cataclysmic change, such as the extinction of species by sudden disasters or by over-hunting, and evolutionary change, such as the adaptation of bacteria to antibiotics. In the strictest sense, economic systems don't evolve.

    Also, there is a problem with terminology. Calling a gene the "selfishness" gene is clever, but selfishness is a judgment about behavior, not a scientific concept narrowly defined. What you decide is selfish may not be what anyone else would say is selfish. There is also a distinction to be made between self preservation and species preservation, between personal profit and broader responsibility for the human race or for the world at large, between actions intended to enhance reproductive possibilities and those intended to enhance personal conditions.

    Evolution in nature is an unconscious process; not a deliberative one. Species change over generations, not within individuals. Individual and personal adaptation to current conditions (conscious or unconscious) isn't evolutionary, it's simply responsive.

    Capitalism, by the way, is neither s narrowly defined process, nor universally accepted as best fitting either human psychology or evolutionary dynamics. I would argue, in fact, that human behavior and technology has reached a point where we have begun to interfere with and to a degree exempt ourselves from the kinds of natural selection that evolutionary theory describes. We clearly no longer mate or reproduce in ways that natural selection for species survival would suggest.
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      Nov 19 2013: Evolution does not only occur in biological systems. Many systems evolve over time, and thus we can analyze these systems using the same or similar methodology to biological systems. For instance, in the same way that species change over time, due to certain select pressures, so do business models. In addition, what systems work best for humans is highly dependent on our collective psychology, which is a result of our evolutionary history.

      Well, we could argue about the nomenclature of the theory, but that doesn't change the theory itself. The selfish gene theory simply states that evolutionary dynamics creates a situation where an individual will work to increase its own reproductive odds, or those of individuals closely related to it. This explains why humans are conspicuous consumers and why we look to amass such a large material inventory.

      I'm not sure how your statement regarding evolution being an unconscious process really fits into the discussion. I never said that it was a conscious process.

      Look at A Consuming Instinct before you make a judgement regarding the role of evolutionary science in economics and other fields: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5fOdch-pKU
    • Timo X

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      Nov 21 2013: Moving from sea to land is a sudden change, but still evolution. Markets are certainly not deliberative, that's why Adam Smith spoke of an 'invisible hand'. And your conception of evolution leading to the 'best fitting' adaptation is simply wrong: evolution leads to better fitting adaptations, not best fitting. A good example is the occurrence of goose bumps in humans, which actually makes people more susceptible to cold. So I don't find any of your arguments very strong.
      • Nov 21 2013: please see my response above. I intended it to go here, but did something wrong. Sorry.
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          Nov 21 2013: I do that quite frequently. Usually I just delete it and copy it into reply. I'll be reading it in a moment.

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