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See Inside January 2008

Evonomics

Evolution and economics are both examples of a larger mysterious phenomenon



MATT COLLINS

Living along the Orinoco River that borders Brazil and Venezuela are the Yanomamö people, hunter-gatherers whose average annual income has been estimated at the equivalent of $90 per person per year. Living along the Hudson River that borders New York State and New Jersey are the Manhattan people, consumer-traders whose average annual income has been estimated at $36,000 per person per year. That dramatic difference of 400 times, however, pales in comparison to the differences in Stock Keeping Units (SKUs, a measure of the number of types of retail products available), which has been estimated at 300 for the Yanomamö and 10 billion for the Manhattans, a difference of 33 million times! How did this happen? According to economist Eric D. Beinhocker, who published these calculations in his revelatory work The Origin of Wealth (Harvard Business School Press, 2006), the explanation is to be found in complexity theory. Evolution and economics are not just analogous to each other, but they are actually two forms of a larger phenomenon called complex adaptive systems, in which individual elements, parts or agents interact, then process information and adapt their behavior to changing conditions. Immune systems, ecosystems, language, the law and the Internet are all examples of complex adaptive systems.

In biological evolution, nature selects from the variation produced by random genetic mutations and the mixing of parental genes. Out of that process of cumulative selection emerges complexity and diversity. In economic evolution, our material economy proceeds through the production and selection of numerous permutations of countless products. Those 10 billion products in the Manhattan village represent only those variations that made it to market, after which there is a cumulative selection by consumers in the marketplace for those deemed most useful: VHS over Betamax, DVDs over VHS, CDs over vinyl records, flip phones over brick phones, computers over typewriters, Google over Altavista, SUVs over station wagons, paper books over e-books (still), and Internet news over network news (soon). Those that are purchased “survive” and “reproduce” into the future through repetitive use and remanufacturing.

As with living organisms and ecosystems, the economy looks designed—so just as humans naturally deduce the existence of a top-down intelligent designer, humans also (understandably) infer that a top-down government designer is needed in nearly every aspect of the economy. But just as living organisms are shaped from the bottom up by natural selection, the economy is molded from the bottom up by the invisible hand.

The correspondence between evolution and economics is not perfect, because some top-down institutional rules and laws are needed to provide a structure within which free and fair trade can occur. But too much top-down interference into the marketplace makes trade neither free nor fair. When such attempts have been made in the past, they have failed—because markets are far too complex, interactive and autocatalytic to be designed from the top down. In his 1922 book, Socialism, Ludwig von Mises spelled out the reasons why, most notably the problem of “economic calculation” in a planned socialist economy. In capitalism, prices are in constant and rapid flux and are determined from below by individuals freely exchanging in the marketplace. Money is a means of exchange, and prices are the information people use to guide their choices. Von Mises demonstrated that socialist economies depend on capitalist economies to determine what prices should be assigned to goods and services. And they do so cumbersomely and inefficiently. Relatively free markets are, ultimately, the only way to find out what buyers are willing to pay and what sellers are willing to accept.

Evonomics helps to explain how Yanomamö-like hunter-gatherers evolved into Manhattan-like consumer-traders. Nineteenth-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat well captured the principle: “Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will.” In addition to being fierce warriors, the Yanomamö are also sophisticated traders, and the more they trade the less they fight. The reason is that trade is a powerful social adhesive that creates political alliances. One village cannot go to another village and announce that they are worried about being conquered by a third, more powerful village—that would reveal weakness. Instead they mask the real motives for alliance through trade and reciprocal feasting. And, as a result, not only gain military protection but also initiate a system of trade that—in the long run—leads to an increase in both wealth and SKUs.

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