Rethinking The Rethinking Of Evolution's Theoretical Foundations
    By Josh Witten | January 19th 2009 07:16 PM | 55 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Steve Davis is worried about the theoretical foundations of evolution.  Fear not.  The cdesign proponentsists did not develop a real critique of evolutionary theory while you were sleeping.  Davis is worried that evolutionary theory is overly dependent on widespread, unremitting competition, but that such competition does not exist.  How is that foundation doing?

    I always like to start by being pedantic, even in the shower.  Davis isn't really worrying about the theoretical foundation of evolution.  He is worrying about the theoretical foundation of natural selection.  The two are frequently confused, but they are not synonyms for each other.  Evolution was a widely observed phenomenon, not a theory, even before Darwin.  Today we define evolution in molecular terms as the change in allele frequencies in a population over time.   That definition describes an observation, not a mechanism.

    The title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (emphasis mine), makes it clear that Darwin proposed natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.  Darwin was not the first to propose a mechanism of evolution.  He (along with Wallace) was simply the first to propose one that didn't suck.  For some time, it was the only mechanism we had to explain the phenomenon.  In the modern evolutionary theory, selection is only one of four forces that drive evolution.  The other three, oft forgotten, forces are drift, mutation, and migration.  

    Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to worry about the theoretical foundation of one of the mechanisms of evolution.  So, how is it doing?  Is it overly reliant on competition within species?  How prevalent is within species competition?

    We could look for examples of competition and cooperation.   Davis discusses Dawkins' example of robins competing for territory (Holy Property Lines, Batman!) from The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins find this example compelling.   Others disagree:
    This is simplistic to the point of silliness, for if robins repel all robins then the species dies out. But robin territoriality has been observed, so what’s it all about. Rather than being a battle for resources, I would suggest that it’s a battle for one resource only – potential sexual partners.
    Now, Davis makes no secret of disliking Richard Dawkins, which is fair enough given that Dawkins makes some effort to be dislikable.  The reductio ad absurdum argument above may work for the debating society, but it does not accurately reflect the potential complexity of animal behavior.  This falsely represents a binary choice between constant, unrelenting competition or no competition.

    The fact is that I can find anecdotes of within species competition (e.g., dolphins killing dolphins) or cooperation between species (e.g., groupers and giant moray eels in the Red Sea) easily and can interpret those anecdotes to support my preconceived notions.
    The plural of anecdotes is not data.
        -Randy Pausch
    In the robin example, the robins do not compete for every single resource in their niche.  They compete for a limited resource, sexual partners.  This example is consistent with both our current understanding of natural selection and Darwin's thinking on the subject..

    The history of natural selection as an idea is filled with interesting stories and characters (ok, mostly Thomas Huxley on both counts).  Among those historical tidbits is the fact that we can identify and date Charles Darwin's flash of insight:
    In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle
    for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
        - Charles Darwin, from his autobiography. (1876)              (
    The "struggle for existence which everywhere goes on" easily becomes the cliche "nature red in tooth and claw," where competition is the rule and cooperation should be rarer than a three-eyed fish.  Much as the "To be or not to be" speech is not the most important in Hamlet (the most important is the speech at the end of Act IV, Scene iv), the "struggle" line above is not the key line in this passage.  Darwin put in a qualifier, ". . .it at once struck me that under these circumstances. . ."  What were the circumstances that Malthus inspired Darwin to think about?  

    Malthus had observed that many plants and animals produce far more offspring than can survive.  He was concerned that humans could suffer the same problem.  But, Malthus was not really worrying about competition.  His fundamental concern was that the human population would outstrip its ability to produce food.  Malthus was concerned with the effects of limited resources on humanity.

    The theoretical foundation of natural selection is that some, but not all, resources will be limited.  Given the finite nature of the Earth, this seems a reasonable foundation.  Extreme forms of competition and cooperation are simply two possibilities in a spectrum of strategies for dealing with limited resources.

    Instead of debating the plausibility of extreme strategies of competition and cooperation, let's start by thinking about the effect limited resources have on one's strategy.  Biological systems require resources to survive and reproduce.  Life, however, does not require infinite resources.  There is a minimum and, likewise, it is reasonable to assume that there is a maximum above which the continued acquisition of resources is no longer provides additional benefit.  In Davis' example of grazing animal herds:
    For grazing animals, sharing of resources is their mode of operation. There could well be isolated instances of jostling for a particularly juicy bit of herbage, but such would be rare, certainly not typical. The cost in energy is just not worth the effort.
    individuals are neither competing nor cooperating for grass.  Grass is not a limited resource in this case. 

    Let's try a gedankenexperiment to understand competition and cooperation as strategies for dealing with limited resources.  Michael White of Adaptive Complexity fame and I sit back-to-back in the same lab (accordingly, all his good ideas are actually mine, and all my bad ideas are his).  On Fridays, a neighboring lab regularly fails to eat all the donuts at lab meeting (they shall remain nameless to save them this undying shame).  Assuming that Michael and I want to eat no more than one donut (a fallacious assumption, but work with me), one donut represents the maximum benefit we can receive from this resource.  If the neighboring lab leaves two or more donuts, then Michael and I can each derive maximum donut benefits in the absence both competition and cooperation.  Call this the benign neglect strategy (A).   You will recognize below and to the side the donut as a donut, the pasty-faced smiley as Michael, the  red-faced interloper, and the pleasant skin tones of myself.

    If only one donut is left, the options become more complicated.  Michael and I could share the donut, each receiving half a donut benefit (B).  Alternatively, Michael and I could fight for the donut, in which case I would receive
    maximum donut benefit (C); unless an interloping, third lab member swept in
    while Michael and I engaged in Mortal Kombat to steal the donut, in which case I would receive no benefit (D).  If the donut gets stolen half the time Michael and I battle, then sharing becomes a more effective strategy than fighting. 

    In this context, we can precisely define competition and cooperation.  Competition exists when one individual obtains a benefit to themselves (the donut), by denying benefit to another (Michael's beat down), usually at a cost to themselves (risk of a third party stealing the donut).  Cooperation is not the absence of competition.  Cooperation is when an individual allows another to obtain a benefit (half a donut) at some cost to themselves (half a donut).  The best strategy depends on the parameters of the environment, in this case third lab member frequency. 

    This highly simplified example looked at only two choices.  In reality, I not only have the option to choose a 100% competitive strategy or a 100% competitive strategy, but I can choose to compete, cooperate, or neglect at any frequencies in between.  The effect that the circumstances have on the resulting strategy in scenarios similar to the one above have been explored extensively using the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma from game theory.   I believe it even finds its way into Dawkins' much-maligned Selfish Gene.

    For a real life example, let's take a look at the most famous* natural selection research project around, namely the long-term observation of Darwin's finches on the Galapagos Islands by Peter and Rosemary Grant.  As it so happens, I had lunch with the Grants not too long ago and got to talk a bit about the details of their research program. 707-11.

    The Grants observed dramatic changes in body size, beak size, and beak shape among the finch populations they studied.  Those results were highly dependent on the weather.  During periods with plenty of rain, the Grants observed minimal selection on beak shape, because food was not a limiting resource.  During droughts, they observed rapid evolution of beak shape as food became limited in quantity and diversity of size.  The finches move from benign neglect to competition, depending entirely on the parameters of their environment.

    Like in our thought experiment, the results of a real world evolutionary process depends on the details of the dynamic environment of the individuals being studied.  Natural selection is not dependent on widespread competition.  Competition and cooperation are simply two of many possible strategies for dealing with the problem of limited resources.

    I do, however, tend to agree with Michael Lynch that in discussions of evolution we are too reliant on adaptive explanations:
    The vast majority of biologists engaged in evolutionary studies interpret virtually every aspect of biodiversity in adaptive terms. This narrow view of evolution has become untenable in light of recent observations from genomic sequencing and population-genetic theory. Numerous aspects of genomic architecture, gene structure, and developmental pathways are difficult to explain without invoking the nonadaptive forces of genetic drift and mutation.
    This adaptionist focus, rooted in the tendency of researchers to systematically ignore the explanatory power of the three other forces of evolution, leads to an oversimplification of evolutionary theory's public face.  It is as if I tried to explain all of physics through gravity alone.  Indeed, the proposed lack of widespread competition poses a grave threat to the foundation this oversimplified impression of evolutionary theory.  The foundations of the real evolutionary theory?  They remain solid. 

    Now, stop worrying.  It's bad for your blood pressure.

    *Thanks to the wildly popular, much lauded, and apparently execrable, book The Beak of the Finch.


    Becky Jungbauer
    On Fridays, a neighboring lab regularly fails to eat all the doughnuts at lab meeting (they shall remain nameless to save them this undying shame).
    They neglect to eat free food - and they call themselves real scientists? I posit that robins in neighboring labs will out-compete them for grant funding and cold room space by virtue of more sugar-fueled energy to complete experiments in an expedited fashion.
    Steve Davis

    Josh, just a couple of quick comments while I digest your article. You must have read mine in a hurry, for I did not find that "such competition does not exist" as you put it. Competition was acknowledged, its alleged significance was challenged. And there was no confusion over evolution and natural selection. Natural selection is the process, evolution is the outcome. It has become a part of "biological folklore" to refer to competition as the foundation of both evolution and natural selection. I happen to disagree with its use in both cases.

    Steve, the "such competition" that I referred to was the widespread, unremitting kind enshrined in the folklore of natural selection.  As you correctly note in your comment and as I attempted (I labor under no illusions about the quality of my non-professional writing) to make clear in my article, this "competition" assumption only threatens the public folklore of evolutionary theory and does not pose a difficulty to the scientific theory.
    Steve Davis

    Josh, anyone reading your article without taking the trouble to re-read the article of mine on which yours is based would conclude from your tone that you have presented a devastating critique. But it turns out that we’re singing from the same song-sheet. We’re just about soul-buddies! However, some points should be made, so I’ll go through them in order. Your point that natural selection is the foundation of evolution is a good one; I doubt you’ll find anything in my article that undermines that. But I have some problems with your discussion of it. I took it from the title of your piece and the opening, that you intended to critically analyse my conclusions, but you wandered off on a tangent, meandering between criticism and agreement. For example, your treatment of my discussion of Dawkins’ robins seems to support my position. Then you quoted my examples of grazing animals sharing a resource and concluded “Grass is not a limited resource in this case” implying that I was somehow distorting the issue. How about in droughts when grazing animals die from hunger, yet their behaviour is for all practical purposes unaltered? They share til they die. The resource is limited. Then you tried to explain cooperation and competition by way of a donut eating example. If it was intended to be humorous that’s great. If it was intended to explain a theoretical principle then it had about as much substance as, well, the hole in the donut. It reminded me of the fanciful examples that selfish gene theorists pull out of the hat to explain their fascinations. It might have been useful but you ruined it with the definition of cooperation that you drew from it; “cooperation is when an individual allows another to obtain a benefit at some cost to themselves.” That’s not cooperation; that’s the biological definition of altruism. Two entirely different things. (Are you sure you don’t play in the forward pack? Sorry guys, that’s a rugby joke.)  I found your discussion of finch beaks very interesting though I’m not sure about “The finches move from benign neglect to competition.” I’d have to see more detail on that because it might be that the behaviour of the finches has not changed at all, it might simply be that natural selection comes into play in times of scarcity, which is after all, what we’d expect. If the behaviour of the finches has not changed then the competition is purely in the eye of the beholder. (It’s a bewitching concept isn’t it?) Then you conclude by saying “Natural selection is not dependent on widespread competition. Competition and cooperation are simply two of the many possible strategies for dealing with the problem of limited resources.” Ahh, that’s just about what I said! You’ve just gone one step further, and I would not disagree with that.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


    Your article served more as a foil for my own ideas, as opposed to being a direct target of criticism.   The medium plays to my snarkier side, as well as the side that loves 80s, 90s, and Classical pop culture references.  Your article addresses the perception of rampant competition in nature, which pertains directly to natural selection.  I felt that it was important to distinguish the phenomenon of evolution from the mechanism of selection. 

    The donut example was a simplistic illustration to demonstrate how one might think about precisely defining "competition" and "cooperation."  It was certainly not meant to be a complex analysis of all possible strategies.  It was also desirable to avoid the minefield of the "direct" and "indirect" competition.  My definition of "benign neglect" seems to be closer to your definition of "cooperation."  The key question becomes how frequent are limiting resources.

    This discussion, as well as the many comments on your article illustrate the difficulties created by loose definitions.  We end up talking about semantics, not science.

    Grazing animals and finches may not directly compete with each other for limited food resources.  They may, however,  act to reduce the resources available to another, perhaps by devoting more energy to foraging (a cost), or they may reduce their own benefit by sharing, perhaps in order to maintain herd structure for predator avoidance. 

    The iterated Prisoner's Dilemma from game theory can be very useful in understanding the stable parameters bounding strategies.  While the "fanciful" parameters might be proposed in order to support a pet theory, the underpinnings of this approach will require more fundamental criticism. 

    I do indeed play in the forward pack as a flanker or hooker.  If I was a back, I would be too busy doing my hair and nails to write articles.

    On the grazing animals, it is of course always possible that they may not directly (but that gets into the semantics again) compete (i.e., push and shove for that last hummock of grass) even in a limited resource environment if that population does not have that strategy variant available in the population.

    In the Steve Davis text Rethinking of Evolution's Theoretical Foundations he had acknowledged the importance of cooperation in ecology and I agree there.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

    The problem is that he sees completion and cooperation as two mutually exclusive forces witch is not true. In the standard theories of competition in ecology there are three types of competition and only one is about direct interaction between the individuals witch is in the realm of  the type of cooperation I have seen you talking about in the article.

    So both Darwin and Steve can be right. Competition can be the driving force in natural selection and the adaptations in evolution and  Cooperation can be a good competitional strategy and of course absolutely necessary fore higher complexity levels of organism to evolve like multicellular organisms from single celled organisms.

    I don’t really get the doughnut example but I think you miss the really important thing about resource competition witch is to be able to survive on so low levels of  doughnut’s as possible if you and your kind can survive on very low level of doughnuts and the doughnuts are the limiting factor you are going to out compete the other labs at least if they don’t use direct aggression with is called interference in ecological theory. It’s is both important to bee efficient to find and eat the doughnuts and to need few of them to survive and procreate.

    For me evolution is how develop and adapt and to be more effective and complex. And how all complex functionally adapted life her on earth have been created. And the bold part of Darvins theory was that the species have develop thru this process. Its true that the microevolution definition of changes I allele frequencies says nothing of adaptation and that all changes in nature is not adaptive. Genetic drift for example is not adaptive and I would not cal it evolution even if it is changes in frequencies of alleles. So I still think the part of adaptation is the really important part in evolution theory

    My example was a fun, simplistic illustration of how one can think about defining these concepts in a functional way.  It was not intended to embrace the broad spectrum of potential.  For simplicity, I left out efficiency of resource use, essentially adjusting the minimum and maximum resource needs, as a strategy.  You are quite correct to point this out as an important potential strategy.

    It appears that you are approaching evolution from an ecological standpoint.  While I approach the topic from a molecular and quantitative genetics framework.  In my mind, the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is a false dichotomy representative of our ignorance of the details of speciation, not a fundamental difference.  To me, the supposed macro/micro dichotomy is analogous to Niels Bohr's "brick wall" between quantum mechanics and the world of classical mechanics.  It only existed until we overcame our ignorance. 

    There are very interesting theories both from adaptionists and neutralists about how the complexity of life has evolved.  Writings by Gerhart, Kirschner, and Andreas Wagner are very interesting on the adaptionist side.  Michael Lynch is an excellent resource on the neutrality side.  Of course, neither of these "sides" claim that their theories are completely exclusive of the processes of the other.

    Unfortunately, I cannot do anything about the technical definition of evolution to make it equate with adaptation or speciation.  The debate about the relative importance of the four forces of evolution in shaping the history of life we observe is still hotly contested.
    you are right
    if you comes from the from a molecular and quantitative genetics framework and want to integrate ecological theories I recommend you to look at adaptive dynamics that mess things up enough to be able to make count fore ecological interaction.
    I think i have to read some Michael Lynch's work to see if he can come with something interesting.
    I think there are theoretical problems to go from calibrating one parameter like beak size or fixation of one allele to the evolution of complex functional structures like for example an eye so there can be more things than speciation that is neglected from microevolution when you ask the question how the complex life here on earth have been created. I have really problem to see the possibility to believe in macroevolution and not microevolution but Darwin had of coarse very dodgy ideas in how traits were inherited and was actually more what we now would have called  Lamarckism. The other way aorund to believe in microevolution and not macroevolution that many of the ID advocate’s do is plausible the problem is to come up with an alternative theory.
    Steve Davis

    Steve, Your article served more as a foil for my own ideas, as opposed to being a direct target of criticism. Wow, I'm pleased about that Josh, I hope I never bring out your really really snarky side! 

    Nils, thanks for your interest and your comments.

    Gerhard Adam

    I think this entire discussion (cooperation versus competition) tends to get bogged down in terminology that is being used to mean a wide range of actions.  Cooperation in the example mentioned in the article (donuts) is "sharing" and is a variation which could almost fall into the "altruism" classification.

    Similarly competition doesn't automatically equate to conflict.

    Clearly there are a wide range of strategies that exist between different groups and within the same group.  In the donut example, if the third interloper had been a mouse, I suspect that the cooperative strategy (between lab-mates) would have prevailed in "competing" against the mouse.

    In reality, one of the primary motivators would have been how important the resource was to any of the participants.  The strategies of cooperation, sharing, competition, or conflict (to consider only a few) would have been determined by the risk/energy expenditure that obtaining the donut would have caused.  If the mouse had eaten a portion of the donut, then I suspect that most of the lab-mates would have conceded defeat because it wasn't a resource they were willing to gain by the expenditure of effort (quite possibly the "sharing" with a mouse may have put them off).

    I think one of the points that tends to get overlooked is that "cooperation"/"competition" is a strategy that actually changes the adaptations of the species involved.  As an example, wolves have evolved in a particular way because they are pack animals, which would be a markedly different path than if they had been lone hunters only. 

    In general, the terminology has been much abused, where "selfish" is being used when only "self-interest" was intended.  Turning the concept of selfishness into an almost obsessive quality (in the way it is described).  As mentioned in the article, competition is taken to mean conflict, etc..  It seems that it is more difficult to overcome the social meanings we attach to these words and as a result we have difficulty in articulating these different strategies.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Well put, Gerhard.  The use of simple and emotionally loaded terms to define complex strategies hurts public understanding of evolution.  At its best, evolutionary theory gets past the semantic questions and actually places parameters on different strategies.

    A fundamental question how limiting are resources?  A common view is that populations always expand until at least one essential resource becomes limiting (i.e., the environment's "carrying capacity").  Advocates for widespread "competition" are positing that resources in a niche are frequently limiting.  Advocates for widespread "sharing" are positing that resources are only infrequently limiting, either do to increasingly efficient use or high availability.

    In fairness, I think Dawkins chose the term "selfish" intentionally for its dramatic, emotional effect.
    Gerhard Adam

    "In fairness, I think Dawkins chose the term "selfish" intentionally for its dramatic, emotional effect."

    He may well have done so, but it gives rise to the fantasy notions about evolution that we've had to deal with since people began misinterpreting "survival of the fittest".

    This has been abused to equating strength with fitness and even given rise to notions of eugenics.

    Even the use of our word "strategy" is subject to misinterpretation if one assigns intent to the action.

    My sense of what actually happens is that it must be a process which occurs independent of thought or even consciousness.  If we were to apply game theory, the processes must be something akin to a Nash equilibrium, where the strategies are not modified based on other decisions.  This isn't to say that they are automatic, but rather that they will tend to dominate (much like a reflex) regardless of other circumstances.  This is precisely why in animals that have more conscious thought processes, their initial reaction to a novel circumstance is to be cautious and distrusting. 

    This is why I'm asserting that "cooperation" as seen in herd animals and packs is more of an evolved process than a conscious one.  It can readily be observed in human beings that, despite many claims to the contrary, humans can't even wrap their brains around the idea of truly surviving alone. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    He may well have done so, but it gives rise to the fantasy notions about evolution that we've had to deal with since people began misinterpreting "survival of the fittest".

    This has been abused to equating strength with fitness and even given rise to notions of eugenics.
    We are in complete agreement here.  When I said "fairness," I was not defending Dawkins.  I meant to imply, albeit in an unclear fashion, that his word choice was a deliberate choice for its effects, but has contributed to misunderstanding.

    Some more about limiting resources

    If the population is not increasing or decreasing exponential there must be something that are limiting but not necessarily any resource. There are one mathematical exception and that is null growth where every pair gets in mean two children but that is not realistic in nature.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

    There are at least one population in nature that actually has shown an exponential growth for a long period: the humans but there are questionable if there can be any evolution under that circumstances. The things that are limiting is commonly some type of resource and probably equally important is predators and parasites. When predators or parasites is a limiting force we have apparent competition so it can still be called competition even if the name is refuted. One way to refute that there always is competition and something limiting is to say that nature always is changing so that it never is in equilibrium but the reasoning gets quite dodgy.

    Gerhard Adam

    "When predators or parasites is a limiting force we have apparent competition so it can still be called competition even if the name is refuted"

    I'm sorry, but that's stretching the definition of "competition" in my opinion.  When a leech sucks blood, I suppose you could consider that there is competition for the blood of the host, but that is stretching the meaning.  Similarly when a lion brings down a zebra, you can't reasonably say that they are in competition with each other, since it is never the zebra's intent to bring down the lion.

    While these are certainly conflicts that occur in nature, you can't argue that they are competitive in any sense of the word's meaning.  Two lions can certainly "compete" over mating rights and perhaps to an extend in hunting a zebra, but you can't say that the zebra and lion are in competition with each other.

    This is precisely the problem in using such terms because they are used to describe too many different phenomena without qualification.

    Mundus vult decipi

    I didn’t mean the direct interaction between predator/parasites because The predator is benefited of the pray. Competition in the broad ecological meaning is when both populations growth is lowered (negative interactions in both direction). Apparent competition is between preys. It is when the population feeds the predators so the predator density gets higher and in that way the preys get slower population growth. That to can be seen to stretch the definition of Competition. Apparent competition isn’t a word I have come up with, it’s is a well established term and you probably can get a better description of it in an ecology book or Wikipedia.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

    Trying to define resources is tricky.  This is where the selfish gene concept can be useful.  The zebra's genes and the lion's genes are in competition for the zebra's flesh.  The zebra genes need the zebra body to acquire energy and materials for reproduction and continued survival.  The lion genes need the zebra body because that is how they acquire energy and materials.  While the lion and the zebra will use the zebra body in different ways, they both need to acquire that resource.

    The simple example I gave in the article illustrated how one can work toward precise definitions.  The terms could have been called Bob, Kim, and Lou, instead of Competition, Cooperation, and Neglect.  It would make no difference.

    In this way of thinking, it is always acquisition of limited resources driving things.  Resources do not always have to be material objects.  Predator/prey or parasite/host or disease/host interactions all still fit into this framework.
    Gerhard Adam

    "This is where the selfish gene concept can be useful. The zebra's genes and the lion's genes are in competition for the zebra's flesh."

    This may sound like I'm really splitting hairs, but it gets to the crux of the problem I have with this viewpoint.  My contention is that their behavior is not competitive at all, but simply one of self-interest rather than selfishness.

    Perhaps I'm attaching too much meaning to the word selfishness, but the intent in this conflict is not to prevent the zebra from reproducing, but rather to improve the lion's chances.  While these may sound similar, I am suggesting that they are completely different viewpoints.

    I would also argue that if "selfishness" were the correct interpretation then we would see much higher incidences of cannibalism in species when resources were constrained.

    It is clear that the gene cannot "know" anything outside of its own existence, so therefore it can behave in no manner other than what it does internally.  It's actually a stretch to even describe this as "self-interest" but it illustrates that point that it would behave in this fashion regardless of the availability of external resources.  In effect, this becomes what we refer to as our "survival sense" or our "will to live".

    I guess part of the problem I have is that "selfishness" and "competition" imply a certain non-cooperative attitude which looks to proclaim winners and losers, and I don't believe anything like that actually occurs (except in our external interpretation of events).  This is even more pronounced when we look at animals like ants/bees or as I mentioned before, in asexual reproduction.

    Interestingly enough, it seems that even in sexual reproduction the gene must engage in a sort of "tit for tat" game theory strategy since only half the material will ever be selected for the offspring.  In this case, it appears that a cooperative strategy is actually involved, since there cannot be any competition at the most fundamental level of gene "self-preservation" without preventing offspring from being produced.

    I realize that this may seem to be more of a semantic argument, but as you also indicated, your thoughts are a foil for my own as well.

    Mundus vult decipi

    In that case the resource in Apparent competition should be absence/low level of predators/parasites a quite abstract and difficult notion<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


    I have used the word Competition i have used in the comments is in the common ecological sense because it is that which affect natural selection and the chance for an allele to be fixed and therefore is what is important in evolution. With the term cooperation I really don't now the exact what I mean.

    Gerhard Adam
    But that is precisely the problem.  The choice of the word "competition" in this context would only relate to successful mating, which never occurs between different species (i.e. giraffe and elephant).  This also fails when one considers that in herd or pack animals, the mating is a function of cooperative behavior within a group, so while individuals may compete for that role, it isn't nearly as common as the number of males in the group.   So clearly, the cooperative intrinsic in group behavior will override the individual need to reproduce.

    Of course, this doesn't even begin to deal with situations where reproduction isn't even an option for cooperative groups (bees and ants) or asexual reproduction.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    ... let me clarify that instead of "successful mating", I should have said "successful rearing of offspring", since the mating is not an end result either.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Successfull rearing can be affected both from individual in the same species and from other species. And there are different chapters about intra and inter specific competition in my ecology book.
    Steve Davis
    In fairness, I think Dawkins chose the term "selfish" intentionally for its dramatic, emotional effect.
    But do you think that choice is useful in biology? Dramatic and emotional are not far removed from sensationalist.
    Imprecise definitions are not useful in science.  Gerhard made a similar point above to which I replied moments ago.  I do not defend Dawkins' choice of words and think that his choice has muddied the waters overall.  My reference to "fairness" was intended to represent that interpreting "selfish" in a sensational way is not an unreasonable degree of confusion based on Dawkins' rhetoric.

    One should recall that The Selfish Gene is a work of popular non-fiction on a scientific topic.  It is not a textbook nor is it a peer reviewed contribution to the scientific literature.  Therefore, it is unsurprising that Dawkins' arguments lack true scientific rigor (publishers of books intended for popular consumption frown on tedious math, etc.).  Therefore, this particular book should not be considered defiintive.
    Seems to me the work of Brooks and Wylie inthe 80s applying information and systems and emergence theories to biological systems , drawing from work by people like Collier,Kaufman Prigogine etc. is way ahead here

    Steve Davis
    One should recall that The Selfish Gene is a work of popular non-fiction on a scientific topic.  It is not a textbook nor is it a peer reviewed contribution to the scientific literature.  Therefore, it is unsurprising that Dawkins' arguments lack true scientific rigor...
     Nicely put Josh, and the consequences of this lack of rigour were revealed by Dawkins himself in The God Delusion; 
    “I was mortified to read in The Guardian that The Selfish Gene is the favourite book of Geoff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist nature from it.”  And all because, as you point out, imprecise definitions are not useful in science.
    Steve, while there is meat behind the Eusociality theories of an EO Wilson.  Social Darwinism is again based on gross oversimplification and the use of natural selection as a mirror, in which one can find validation for whatever worldview one already supports, as opposed to a scientific theory.  Of course, EO Wilson naively contributed to this confusion in some missteps that he has since strongly repudiated.
    Great article. When you conceptualize evolution from the perspective of limited resources, suddenly you can apply all sorts of economic principles - such as that of marginal utility - to evolution. Additionally, economics adds the perspective that it's not a zero-sum game: One species isn't necessarily competing against themselves (or against other species), they're competing against alternative usages of scarce resources. Sometimes that means competing against your own (eg, intra-species competition), but sometimes it means competing against larger market forces. It can mean cooperation at one level (eg, w/your lab mates), & competition at another (eg, against other labs). Look at all the car companies, for instance - for decades they were competing against themselves, but now the big 3 are in trouble at once, not b/c of intra-industry competition, but b/c of larger market forces. It's analogous to a mass-extinction. I had a post on this a while back (, likening economic recession to mass extinctions. Both are dreadful, but overall they stimulate things much more powerfully than times of plenty.

    My own bias is to view economics (which is, in my brain, quantitative modeling human behavior or social science, as opposed to simply studying money) as a special case of evolution (see my post on drift and memes for a flavor).  This way of thinking simplifies things.  You don't have to worry, as much, about levels of selection.  You just worry about what the replicating units are in your system.

    I think this is becoming a very interesting development in both fields as both groups bring strengths and weaknesses to the party.  Unfortunately, they do not talk to each other much.  I was lucky that my father studied economics at U of Chicago while getting his MBA and JD.  So, I got early exposure to the economic way of thinking about resource usage.  Of course, that early exposure has also made me biased in the way I approach things.
    Sounds like you have an interesting background to tackle this area. Recently it's been popular to psychologize economics. The assumption seems to be that in economics, humans are the individual units of action, so in order to proceed in economics, you have to study humans. But I've yet to see a convincing argument really fleshing out this connection.

    If you define economics by the allocation of scarce resources (and this is the best definition I've seen), then economics becomes as much or more about those scarce resources than about humans. To make an analogy, agriculture is concerned with soil, plants, and biology, not about how farmers go about making decisions or how humans go about demanding and supplying fruit. Agriculture's ultimate goal, of course, is directed towards human consumption, but that doesn't make it a social science. I'd make a similar case for economics; obviously either way it's closer to a social science than agriculture is, but it can't be assumed that origins of economics lie in the human mind. Different species require different amounts of resources, but the connection to resources still makes this an economic process. A very concrete example is the application of the division of labor to social species like ants and bees.

    (Having recently reread some Adam Smith, he saw economics solely as a human endeavor due to our unique natural propensity to trade; but I can't believe he didn't see this connection to other species).

    Other species in nature don't stock markets and speculate on commodities, but I suspect that they've come up with methods of allocating scarce resources that are just as complicated and unique.

    My clearest memory (so all the details might be bullshit) of insight into resources and economics came while driving past the Columbus Zoo with my father.  He explained to me:
    Money is just another commodity.
    I think this is just saying the same thing you are in a different way.  What we are interested, both in evolution and economics, is how the behavior of entities changes to deal with limited resources.  "Behavior" here gets defined in the most general terms to include everything from cellular processes to the actions of nations, depending on the scale of the "entities". 

    In my opinion, part of the interest of economics in psychology comes from the realization that people are not rational actors (of course, we all  think we are rational, even when we are behaving irrationally).  The hope is that psychology will provide the tools make the irrationality predictable.  I'm over generalizing here, but evolutionary biology would assume that there is noise and stochastic behavior without worrying too much about exactly what that behavior is or why it occurs.  You would then attempt  to determine the parameters that would make it more likely that the rational, beneficial behavior would become more common than a neutral or detrimental behavior. 
    Gerhard Adam
    I think the economic view is seriously flawed, since it primarily depends not only on control of the resources (by some group), but also in actively destroying or preventing your competition from gaining control of a resource.  This is not an element of evolution.

    When we factor in additional elements such as human groups that can define the conditions of economic distribution or power, we are well outside any normal correlation back to biology.

    Bear in my mind that economics only works when enough people can control the resources that were originally free to all living things and prevent access by essentially forcing participation in a new artificial form of competition.  This is precisely why the biosphere is perpetually in a struggle to preserve habitat.  Human beings have managed to take the "unownable" and brought it into an artifical system of ownership.  After all it is modern civilization that has produced the curious phenomenon of an abundance of food while people still starve (and if anyone says its a distribution problem, you're simply making my point for me).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard, not to wax condescending, but you are presenting a very simplistic view of the economic/resource approach.  Whole fields of economics now work with game theory to understand what parameter spaces allow particular strategies (evolutionary stable strategies in biology).  They are concerned with benefits versus costs.  The economic and biological models take precisely the same form.  Furthermore, nations and overarching legal formalisms serve either as a lubricant or impediment to trade, economics still exists in anarchy.
    Bear in my mind that economics only works when enough people can control the resources that were originally free to all living things and prevent access
    This is no different than a robin defending its territory.  Do not confuse the legal formalities of economy with the concepts of economics.
    Gerhard Adam
    "This is no different than a robin defending its territory.  Do not confuse the legal formalities of economy with the concepts of economics."

    I'm sorry but it is vastly different.  While the robin will defend its territory it doesn't preclude all others from acquiring whatever is necessary for themselves.  There is no exlusivity nor exclusion involved.  With humans the means of food access are controlled by notions of ownership.  It simply isn't possible for people to use their own skills or knowledge to acquire food unless they also participate in the ownership of the "territory" in which they are engaged.  This applies even if the other individuals never even access their "territory". 

    Modern economic theory only works when the means of production can be controlled and force individuals to give up their natural tendencies to participate in the artificial.  This is precisely why native people's are invariably destroyed by encounters with "civilization".  Their own means of surviving are removed and they are forced to participate in a system for which they are unprepared, resulting in their poverty. 

    It was also this idea of "ownership" versus "territory" that allowed the colonial powers to take the land away from the native Americans because while they recognized territory, they had no legal concept of ownership and were overrun by the economic powers of Europe to force participation.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Modern economic theory only works when the mean production be controlled and force individuals to give up their natural tendencies to participate in the artificial.

    But what here would you define as artificial versus natural? Agriculture was perhaps mankind's largest revolution; in comparison to hunter-gatherers, it's very artificial. But you can't deny its fruits, and none of us would be alive today if the agricultural revolution never occurred.

    I feel we are using different definitions of economics.  Most of your complaints are about the ethics of the strategies that humans use for acquisition and control of resources.  The concept of "ownership" of a resource exists on a continuum from no defense of resources (as in Steve's grazing animals - during time of plenty), to robin's defending a mating territory, to canine's marking trees, to modern deeds for land. 

    Indigenous populations lose out to technologically advanced invaders because the indigenous populations do not have strategy variants available to them (e.g., disease resistance, gun powder, legal systems, organized military) to successfully compete for their environment's resources.   Sometimes, it just comes down to relative population size (i.e., the carrying capacity of the resources of each groups supporting environment).  It must be noted that short-term competitive success or failure doesn't make one culture's strategies superior, moral, or good long-term approaches.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand what you're saying but I'm suggesting that the differences are much more profound. 

    Indigenous people lose out because the issue isn't about access to resources but controlling them.  Admittedly, they may have fewer options to defend themselves against such an assault, but it doesn't resemble biological competition at all.  When resources are desired, it is imperative that control is gained, so that whatever business process is used, there is no ambiguity regarding the availability of resources for production.  While one can certainly examine the morality or ethics of such decisions, but that fact alone indicates how different the competition is.  This is why you often hear that the argument about taking native American land is a sort of "they weren't using it for anything" discussion.

    In the second case, all competitors must have a risk against which they can weigh the benefit.  There is no risk associated with an entity that exists only as a legal fiction (i.e. corporations).  While many would argue that making or losing money is the risk, it is a fictitious risk because it exists only on paper.  Those that would truly experience financial risk are those that have no power over the operation (witness the employees of Enron, etc.).  Even then, the "risk" is because without being able to participate in this system, the economics could turn against them.  It isn't because resources are necessarily scarce, it's because those that control them want to hoard them until circumstances change. 

    I can think of no species that starves with plentiful resources except human beings.

    This is precisely why we observe the risky behaviors of corporations because, in the end, they have no real 'skin in the game'.  To draw a biological analogy it would be tantamount to having a large predator living on the land and if it dies, then 1000 other species automatically die with it.  While we could certainly envision scenarios similar to this, if we add the fact that this large predator doesn't actually exist (in other words, a corporation can never starve or feel pain, so it has no real existence), it would illustrate the absurdity with which we have managed economy.  I have seen the same phenomenon in training students in martial arts, where if the rules are 'no contact', then the behavior becomes dramatically more reckless and risky because the student knows there are no real consequences for their choices.

    Another problem which also plays into the issue with indigenous people is that economic theory is premised on infinite growth.  Without growth economies fail, and when coupled with governmental intervention then no "evolution" of the process can occur.

    When everything is considered I believe that natural selection is primarily driven by death which eliminates "undesirable" gene from the future pool, whereas economics is based on growth.  Modern economics has amply demonstrated that no society can tolerate corporate "death" in any real sense, so therefore it cannot evolve nor can it fit into the model of biology.

    Even most of the "resource" exchanges that occur in economics aren't risky enough to warrant the kinds of evolutionary choices that living organisms contend with, so while it may bear a slight resemblance, it is of a completely different kind (i.e. buying an iPod would never be discussed among starving people).

    While I can appreciate some of the similarities that economics brings into the discussion, if it were truly modeled after biology we would be forced to conclude that we have a non-viable ecology that is set to collapse.  There isn't enough diversity to sustain any long term stability.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hi Gerhard, I think you really have a point about what makes economics unique to humans. Human ingenuity is really what makes principles of macroeconomics so hard to apply on a massive scale. If the life expectancy of humans remained stable over the past few generations, then universal healthcare would have a good chance of succeeding. Prolonging of life expectancy however has made this difficult to attack from central planning. But if you take away growth & ingenuity, which is what was responsible for prolonging life expectancy, then communism on the whole works quite well, & this you can see in ant colonies & beehives. It's almost like economics works better in other species.

    Beyond that tho I think you’re overlooking a number of points.

    Firstly, death is a risk in economics. Losses are as informative as profits. If you’ve ever invested in the stock market, you might know what I mean: You face a very real risk of losing your money. Your stomach might churn & your skin might itch, it’s very real.

    Large businesses do go under or bankrupt. It happens many times. This is why the auto bailout was a bad idea, but that’s for another day. Oftentimes the people running what’ve turned into successful businesses have felt this risk. On multiple occasions McDonalds almost went bankrupt. Its founder, Ray Kroc, died of course a millionaire, but he put it all out on the line many times before finally succeeding. From a business perspective, of course, the point is to make money, but in order to best allocate resources, losses are as important – if not more - to the economy as profits. (Economist Thomas Sowell explicitly makes this point.)

    “I can think of no species that starves with plentiful resources except human beings.”

    This is a stretch. Certainly a dog living the good life in one part of the world isn’t responsible for a dog starving in another. The implication is that human “society” as a whole has plentiful resources while other people in that society are starving. But still, how far would you stretch the definition of “society”? Evolutionary research suggests that we were evolved to work/cooperate in groups of I think 10-20 (some limited number). Consider that on the family level, it would be rare to see a human family living in a house with abundant resources while one member is starving.

    “Without growth economies fail…”

    I also think you’re overlooking the similarities between economics and biology even in some of the examples that you bring up. Growth is a key part of biology. Stop a species from reproducing, it’ll die off. That’s the whole of evolution by sexual selection. Many antibiotics & antifungals work by inhibiting cell synthesis. Using them, doctors kill many infections, not by stabbing them death, but simply by preventing them from growing. Obviously the result of all of nature’s “unchecked” growth isn’t a “non-viable ecology”. But you can’t deny that growth is a cornerstone of nature.

    If we looked at a forest using motion-capture photography over the past million years, then I suspect that we’d see cycles of booms and busts similar to the business cycle.

    Gerhard Adam

    Firstly, death is a risk in economics.

    I think that's definitely a stretch.  However the distinction I'm going for is that the risks in economics are more like gambling ... you may feel fear and apprehension, but at the end of the day you still walk away none the worse for the wear. 

    Even if you lost all of your money, modern society would still provide a means for you to continue living by providing some element of food and shelter.   But, that's really beside the point. 

    It's similar to the idea behind adrenaline junkies and extreme sports.  They aren't about bravery as much as they demonstrate a faith in society's medical technology.  The risks aren't the same.  It's the difference between flying a plane versus a simulator.

    We go hunting for fun because there's no risks.  We are not absolutely dependent on the outcome.

    As I mentioned, you can certainly draw some similarities in between economics and biology, but monetary risks are not the same as "life&death" risks. 

    "Certainly a dog living the good life in one part of the world isn’t responsible for a dog starving in another."

    Absolutely true, however what can you say where families may go hungry living within a mile of supermarket?  That's a consequence of economics, not genetics or biology.  

    "Large businesses do go under or bankrupt. It happens many times."

    Once again, this is true but a business will never go hungry, feel cold, sick, or die.  It is a legal fiction that only exists on a piece of paper.  If the individuals behind it don't ultimately suffer any REAL consequences (beyond monetary ups or downs), then once again the risks don't compare to biological ones.  In a nutshell it is the difference between the attitude you would display if you risked someone punching you versus suing you.

    You mentioned that "growth" is a part of biology, but I indicated that economics is based on infinite growth.  There is nothing in economics that takes into account stability or anything that approaches a steady state.  Biology has the diversity to ensure a relative degree of checks and balances, so that no single species goes too far out of line.  When an imbalance occurs, then we may see a spike in population followed by a catastrophic die-off, which could even lead to extinction.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, consider how a CEO would behave if instead of losing a bonus, or being fired by the board, he could be executed?  How do you think that would affect the decisions?  That's the point I'm trying to get across as to the difference between real risks versus artificial ones.

    SIDE NOTE:  In the beginning of your response you indicated the increase in human life-span, but interestingly I can't find any evidence that such a thing as actually occurred in any appreciable way.  While it is routinely stated as a matter of fact, I have never encountered any historical figures that died outside the range we encounter today unless they were killed (or acquired a fatal disease, which doesn't appear any more common than we see today).

    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm not sure this debate is resolvable.  We seem to disagree on how profoundly different human behavior is from animal behavior.

    The economic approach discussed does not deal simply deal with monetary risk.  It deals with benefits and costs of resources.  Money is one resource available in some environments.  Benefits and costs can be applied to any resource set, potentially corresponding to hunger or fear of death.

    You are crossing scales with your corporation example.  A corporation can both be part of the ecological structure and an individual entity, much like I am both the environment for my gut microbiota and an individual entity.  While my actions are of terrible importance to my microbiota and I need them, they do not directly factor into my behavioral decisions.  Great confusion ensues if you try to treat me as both scales simultaneously. 

    No one is suggesting an equality between the economy that we have and biology.  That is a bankrupt metaphor.  The argument is that economic tools of analysis are applicable to costs and benefits in a limited resource environment.  In the game theory example, the exact same model can be used to model animal behavior or the behavior of human groups. 

    RE SIDE NOTE: The routinely stated face is that life expectancy, not life span, has dramatically increased over the last 100 years or so.  Life span represents the range of age that an average human being can achieve.  Inasmuch as you were actually discussing life span, then you are correct.  Life span has not increased.  Life expectancy represents the number of years an average individual is expected to live upon live birth.  Prior to vaccines, sanitary hospitals, quality sewer and water systems, etc., life expectancy was severely depressed by high juvenile mortality rates.  Therefore, any historical figure you might have heard of will have survived long enough to escape those childhood killers and do something notable.
    Gerhard Adam
    "Benefits and costs can be applied to any resource set, potentially corresponding to hunger or fear of death."

    I agree that we probably will not resolve our differences, or whether some may even be semantic.  Just to use this one sentence, my point is that risk of hunger or death cause different behaviors than simply being financially inconvenienced.  This is easily seen when people gamble and don't lose more than they have set aside for that purpose.  It isn't a real risk, it's entertainment.

    Part of the game theory analysis has to take into account whether decisions would be changed in different options were known (i.e. Nash equilibrium, etc.).  Those decisions will be vastly different depending on the real risks associated with the choices. 

    RE: SIDE NOTE:  I agree that the life expectancy is used, but in my view I haven't found any reasonable meaning to the number.  An example from a site indicates:

    "<!--StartFragment --> Romans had a approximate life expectancy of 22 to 25 years. In 1900, the world life expectancy was approximately 30 years and in 1985 it was about 62.." 

    However this doesn't reflect reality, since expectancy is dependent on what age you're being evaluated at.  This leads to many erroneous conclusions such as Romans only lived until the age of 22-25, or adults had an average life span of 30 years in 1900.  While I appreciate what you're saying, part of my point is that this is an abuse of statistics rather than reflecting the probability of surviving from birth (which it actually doesn't do either).
    Mundus vult decipi
    RE the side note on life span, this was in reference to Americans who are in need of health care. I don't know about the whole world, but it's pretty clear that that set of people is living longer, which is why it was hard to determine the *economic* costs of their healthcare 50 years in advance. That much isn't controversial or abusive of stats.

    Different costs should elicit different behaviors.  Hunger and death have different costs.  As does gambling.

    Life expectancy statistics indicate the average number of years one can expect to live from a given age.  The population wide statistics you sight indicate life expectancy at the moment of live birth.  Again, they are mostly driven by juvenile mortality.  Think of them as means with HUGE variances.
    Economic activity isn't at all like gambling. Gambling is a zero-sum game which creates no value, the house is always against you, and the odds don't really change. When lots of people invest in a small promising company, they're not just rolling the die, they're helping that company get started (eg, see Amazon's history), or in the case of a bigger company, they're helping them expand. When a company does something stupid, lots of people take out their money, even if it means accepting a loss. More commonplace "gambles" that companies make are hiring employees, opening a new plant, etc. All involve degrees of risk, but what doesn't?

    Companies tend to go out of business for the same reason as genes: they've become defective. It doesn't matter that companies can't feel pain, neither can genes. If you want an analogy with blood, consider the risks that the head of a mob faces in a black market, where both profits and loss come at the risk of death.

    But the standard of physical pain is arbitrary anyway, because a good economy *seeks* to separate itself from such physicality by coming up with new ways to deal with risk. A natural disaster is much less deadly in a wealthy nation. Individuals seek insurance before they're even sick. Good companies stock up on liquid assets in case they need it. A decline in the stock market predicts an upcoming decline in the economy. Dealing with risks is one of the primary benefits of a good economy – and in this sense it’s the complete opposite of gambling. When an economy falters, people don’t die right away – like you’re proposing with CEOs – but at almost every level, people become exposed to much more risk, which – if you must liken things to life & death - brings them closer to death.

    "There is nothing in economics that takes into account stability or anything that approaches a steady state. Biology has the diversity to ensure a relative degree of checks and balances, so that no single species goes too far out of line."

    There's really nothing in biology that takes into stability into account either. If the idea is that biology appears stable because of its "diversity to ensure checks & balances", then the same thing occurs in economics.

    Perhaps most importantly, neither economics nor biology are zero-sum games at least, not on our scale. The degree of volatility (not the mechanisms behind it…or perhaps) can be likened to mankind’s growth in knowledge, which advances in stops and stutters, it's always necessarily advancing.

    Gerhard Adam
    I appreciate your comments, and I suspect we probably won't agree on the issues, but just to clarify my point.  The issue of "life&death" is the means by which biology enforces success or failure, whereas by mitigating risks, economics encourages more and more risky behavior.

    Similarly, one of the primary problems today is that organizations have become so large that they represent a risk by their very existence.  This precludes competition which would give rise to the diversity you're talking about, but in practice this rarely occurs except in small businesses.  The current crisis in the U.S. is almost exclusively driven by risky behavior and institutions that are too large to be allowed to simply fail.  While some would argue that the latter course should be allowed to occur, I suspect that there is a real fear that economic chaos would overflow into the social/political environment more than it already has.

    I'm not sure I agree with the idea that economics is NOT a zero-sum game.  Value is an invention of the human mind, and depending on one's perspective, we do not have infinite resources, so whatever we exploit must be removed from someone (or something) else.  When an economy collapses it is easy to see that there is no value to the system except in the minds of its participants.  Therefore everything is based on the exchange of promises, so the stability of any economic system is based on how well those "promises" are believed.  One of the key problems with many of the latest economic developments is the failure to recognize that resources are NOT infinite. cannot sell books without taking away customers from other book stores, so while that is certainly reasonable competition it is also zero-sum.  The vast majority of customers do not have infinite resources, so a product sold to one customer must deprive another company of a sale.  This simple fact seems to have escaped the auto manufacturers in Detroit.

    This is one of my concerns, is that this "value" has been artificially inflated by encouraging an unprecedented growth in credit debit which does NOT reflect value.  So like so many business cycles, economic stimulation becomes problematic because most people use money to pay existing debt, rather than purchase new products.  It is my opinion that this entire system rests on the implicit belief that people are foolish enough to continue consuming products even when it becomes detrimental to their own survival.  That kind of consumerism is now being challenged and most companies are scared to death that the consumer will no longer be receptive to their marketing.

    We saw the same kind of artificial inflation of "value" in the technology bubble and now we're seeing it in the financial sector.  The failure to realize that paper does not intrinsically have value and when it is called due, the system collapses.  Value cannot be produced from nothing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "I appreciate your comments, and I suspect we probably won't agree on the issue"

    & I do yours, & it's probably for the best to not agree, else what we have to say? Knowledge progresses thru dialogue, which is difficult when you reach an equilibrium. As long as the focus remain on the topic & not on opinions or agreeing.

    "Value cannot be produced from nothing."

    Your perspective sounds similar to a creationist.

    Resources at any one time are limited, but over time they grow. In this sense, they're not quite infinite, but they're closer to infinite than they are to finite. Otherwise mankind would've all starved from Malthusian predictions. In this sense, you have to admit that resources have *expanded*, & they've done so pretty far.

    Resources are also useless unless we discover how to use them. If you can't build another store on ground level, build up. Too expensive? Go into cyberspace. What makes the stock market so amazing is that it takes away so many costs. Consequently, additional money can be diverted elsewhere.

    If you buy a book at Amazon, read & enjoy it, of course you gain value from the book. The value is much greater than if you'd given the book to someone who didn't want it. Maybe you found the book there by an internet search & you wouldn't have found it at a physical bookstore. Or you payed less for it. By you finding the right bargain, it's the value that's increased. Yes, one bookstore lost a customer, but just as I was saying before, losses are important, b/c now they're going to have to try harder. Non-zero-sum refers to the benefits/costs of the customer, society, amazon, & competing bookstore.

    The notion that our economy is solely based on consuming goods is a myth. This portion of the economy is often blown out of proportion, if only b/c it's easy to relate to & report on. Part of the reason for this is b/c, contrary to popular notions, if consumers spent less & saved more, then our economy would have more in the way of loaning/investing (eg, thru banks). In other words if people went out to dinner less, yes, it'd be bad for restaurants, but it would be good for other perhaps even more integral sectors.

    "This precludes competition..."

    It's shockingly rare for a monopoly to rise out of a free-market w/o gov't support. Even in cases where you have a few conglomerates fighting, there's still competition. More importantly, the fighting is going on for the allocation of scarce resources, which means that the competition isn't just against your rival, it's against who ever's using your resources.

    People are always looking for scapegoats, & I'm not sure why you're so quick to blame greedy businessmen. The notion of an economic collapse followed by world chaos is certainly frightening - it's late so correct me if I'm wrong - but I don't think it's really happened before. More often you have a gov't taking over the economy after an economic collapse, & they just make things exponentially worse in an attempt to get better. Studies have shown that FDR most likely prolonged the great depression. Pre-WWII hyperinflation in Germany turned a depression into a true crisis. There's always the thought that times are different these days, the world's bigger, post-9/11, more danger, but that thought that now is different, now we really need grab the reins, has rarely been justified in past generations in US history, & when it's been acted upon, it's been more likely to lead to 1984-like policies than economic collapses. In other words, what truly distinguishes your concern that now things are *really* getting out of hand, from the myopic concern that masses get whenever they face any prospect of change?

    Gerhard Adam
    My statement about "value from nothing" is from the current financial crisis where profits were booked when sales were made, rather than collected.  When debt was sold between corporations despite the fact that no one validated whether the loan was any good.  Ultimately whoever got stuck with the bad paper took the hit and it was fundamentally a "value from nothing" scam.

    "The notion that our economy is solely based on consuming goods is a myth"

    While it isn't solely based on consumption, it currently constitutes 72% of GDP (in the U.S.).  That's pretty hefty no matter what your perspective.  As a result, a significant portion of what was considered growth was based on increasing consumer debt without regard for whether it would ever be paid back.

    Economies have collapsed when you consider Germany after WWII, to name one, when the currency was devalued.  While I'm not as familiar with it, the collapse of the Soviet Union is another example.

    In part, I blame corporate businessmen because I've seen too many use their large financial power to decimate small businesses, coerce behaviors by extorting lower prices from suppliers, and basically subverting the legal system by ensuring that no one with comparable finances can ever even go to court.  That's not competition, but it's a political force in its own right.  I realize that these statements are sweeping and not everyone should be included in it, but it's enough of a characteristic to where it also has broad applicability.

    I've also observed how companies get larger and larger, while profits are controlled by pitting U.S. workers against lower cost labor overseas.  I've seen how concepts like "customer service" are practically non-existent because most of these companies know that their influence is so far-reaching that it doesn't really matter if customer's get angry or not.  In many cases, there are no competitive alternatives for consumers, so it doesn't really matter if other companies exist, because they all follow the same basic practices (witness the oil companies, utilities, phone companies, cable, airlines, etc.).  While there may be some minor differences in the basic services, the only real alternative to the consumer is to simply not participate at all (if that is even possible).

    Financial institutions have managed to abuse their positions by simply changing contract terms when it suits them (i.e. interest rate changes).  

    The final insult comes when all these brilliant business leaders get into trouble, then they go to the government for taxpayer bailouts, because in the end, they know that letting them fail may be worse than bailing them out.  This simply sends the message that they can hold the taxpayer hostage to continue to take risks with someone else's money.

    Bear in mind that this isn't the first time, these things have happened, whether it be something obvious like Enron, or poorly considered Latin American loans some years ago.   

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to businesses, but rather I'm of the opinion that the legal structure of corporations promotes unethical behavior and creates a temptation that causes the leadership to behave in ways they never would if they were personally responsible.  It splits the loyalty of corporate leaders between profits (to the point of greed) and society, which makes us all that much poorer as a result.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "My statement about "value from nothing" is from the current financial crisis where profits were booked when sales were made, rather than collected."

    In the grander scheme today, this is linked to current accounting laws favoring a method called mark-to-market accounting. Which is to say that it's not due to unchecked growth. Gov't attempts to encourage banks to err on the side of giving people loans is also largely to blame. Both of which are unnatural causes for the current collapse, similar to side-effects of prescription drugs. The rules created an environment in which value was easily misrepresented and speculating on loans seemed unduly rewarding.

    “Economies have collapsed when you consider Germany after WWII, to name one, when the currency was devalued. While I'm not as familiar with it, the collapse of the Soviet Union is another example.”

    The point in these examples is that economic collapse is much more commonly due to bad gov’t than to economies growing too large. The Soviet Union wasn’t suffering a large economy that had collapsed, it was just suffering from gov’t strangulation.

    “While it isn't solely based on consumption, it currently constitutes 72% of GDP”

    Economist Mark Skousen has a fascinating alternative take on this commonly sited stat (see his brief article at The bottom line is that Gross Domestic Product is exactly that – product. It mostly accounts for goods that are ready to be consumed, while under representing less tangible goods such as R&D.

    I think that Skousen’s work really gets at a lot of misconceptions about the economy. If the economy were mostly consumer-based, I could easily see what you mean about consumer goods: You can only go out to eat only so often, and there are only so many widgets & gizmos that you can purchase. But the key is when you look at those less physical goods: We can always try to move society further away from risk; although total capital might fluctuate, we’re never going to lose the ability to mass produce computers inexpensively; likewise for other medical & scientific advances. Skousen estimates that consumer goods account for about a third of an economy’s output per a new macro-statistic he’s been pushing.

    Gotta go, but can talk about the other points later.

    Even if I accept some of your points about the economy, which I'm not necessarily doing, I see these as separate issues about how we manage our resources, which could be fit into the type of analysis we are debating.  It is almost as if we are having a debate Applying evolutionary thinking to business (the opposite direction we have been talking about), has the potential to come up with better solutions to how we run our economy.  Usually we find their are more than one solution (local minima).  It then becomes a question of picking the solution that best fits our societal goals and establishing parameters (laws) to get into that solution space, which makes it all sound so much more simple than it actually is.

    I would argue that the places these analyses have been used to support the behaviors you are decrying have been based on misuse of the principles or too large of a focus on short-term gains, a focus which can be supported by our legal framework.

    I'm not necessarily disagreeing that large corporations, especially monopolies, can be a threat to stability due to a lack of variation.  Think of a non-diverse ecology that is heavily dependent on a single species (i.e., a savanna grassland with only one species of grass).  A problem for that species blows-up the environment for all the rest.  Obviously, something will survive, but the new system will not look anything like the previous version.
    Steve Davis
    Whole fields of economics now work with game theory...
     It doesn't really matter much what they work with Josh, what matters in economics, as Gerhard has pointed out, is power. Much of what Adam Smith said was quite sensible, but his supporters drew from it what they wished and ignored the rest. The result? The US is moving towards a nationalised economy but on Bailout Boulevard and in the corridors of power Adam Smith is still God.
    The framework of dealing with costs and benefits in terms of resources is the same in both disciplines.   Modeling of evolutionary stable strategies and economic behavior use the same models.  It is this interesting fact that has sparked kerrjac and my curiosity.  It appears to me that each side of this debate is defining economics differently. 

    Neither I nor economics as a whole can be held responsible for the conclusions drawn by Adam Smith's acolytes.
    Steve Davis
    Too true Josh, too true.
    Steve Davis
    It splits the loyalty of corporate leaders between profits (to the point of greed) and society...
     As I understand it Gerhard, corporations have a legal obligation to maximise profits for shareholders, but no legal obligation to pursue social profits, or benefits for society. So the situation is actually worse than you portray it, there is no split loyalty. Corporations can engage in socially detrimental programs (that do not break specific laws) with complete immunity as long as they can demonstrate the profit motive.