[Seem to have gotten myself removed from the Evonomics site by making this post – it wasn’t there for 3 weeks. Looks like someone marked it as spam, and Disqus has been flagging all of my posts on that site as spam since. Have now contacted the site owners and it wasn’t them.]
Why promoting only individual competition is disastrous
While I am in substantial agreement with much you say, there are some very important exceptions to that.
You start paragraph 6 with the statement “Evolution is all about competition”, but then go on to prove the lie to that statement, but somehow you seem to not quite see it.
Evolution is not “all about competition”.
Evolution is all about the selective filter of survival on the distribution and abundance of various sets of strategies in populations.
One useful way of conceptualising one set of influences on that is the idea of competition.
Another, and equally useful and essential, way of conceptualising what is going on is looking at the emergence of levels of cooperation.
Another aspect is external factors, often stochastic in nature. [If a human population is growing at about 2% per year, and is in an environment with periodic natural disasters that randomly kill 90% of the population every hundred years or so, then that population would rarely experience human to human competition, as it would be below carrying capacity most of the time. It seems most of humanity lived in an environment with this sort stochastic sweet spot for most our prehistory. In such an environment cooperation has huge advantage over competition. We are currently using technology to expand the carrying capacity faster than the population is growing. We can continue that for a while, and there are limits to how far that strategy can work. At some point growth of human populations has to slow or stop.]
It seems accurate to characterise the emergence of all new levels of complexity in evolved systems as the emergence of new levels of cooperation.
Competition is one of the influences of survival probabilities (often a significant one).
Axelrod showed clearly that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to cheating. So to become stable, cooperative systems must adopt attendant suites of strategies that prevent cheats from invading and destroying the cooperative. (See Dawkins – Selfish Gene – for an introduction to the evolution of cooperation, and the cofactors required for new levels of cooperation to emerge and flourish).
This has to happen at every new level, and there is always something of an “evolutionary arms race” between variants on cheating strategies (a new level of competition in a sense, and in another sense, simply a stochastic thing), and this can lead to new classes of anti-cheating strategies, with very complex multi-dimensional cost benefit matrices (some with extremely long time components, but very high payoffs long term).
Very clearly – proteins are the result of cooperation between RNA molecules (ribosomes and other RNAs).
RNAs and proteins then go on to cooperate to produce sugars and lipids and whole classes of cellular and inter-cellular chemistry, and information processing systems.
As you point out, different sets of prokaryotes then go on to form eukaryotes.
Then large collections of eukaryotes go on to make animal and plant bodies.
Then collections of complex individuals with complex brains go on to make communities. (And there are many variations on subthemes – like the chemical linkage between the monarch butterfly and the swan plant, and many others at many different levels.)
The whole process is repeated at many more levels in the realm of mimetics.
So just saying “Evolution is all about competition” hides far more than it reveals.
And competition is often a very important influence on survival, and there are lots of other influences, and we forget them at our peril.
Competition is important to evolution, but without cooperation, evolution would have gotten no further than RNA soup, and all high level structures we consider intelligent are fundamentally dependant upon many levels of cooperation, far more so than they are any aspect of competition (even though competition was undoubtedly an important factor in their emergence).
And often it is events in the environment that are low probability but very high impact that have very strong influences on the distribution of strategies within population (or sets of populations) – and these are often stochastic, and not at all related to competition in the normal strategic sense, though they are part of the context of competition in another sense.
If one is to comprehend evolution, one _MUST_ be able to see both the competitive and the cooperative aspects, and one _MUST_ be able to see the exponentially increasing impact of the cooperative aspects on the survival of complex organisms like ourselves, and the societies that can emerge from our activities and choices.
Most economists make the simplistic and nonsensical assumption that you seem to reinforce in the quote above, that “evolution [and by inference economics] is all about competition” that ignores the many levels of cooperation, and the many levels of attendant anti-cheating strategies, that allow any complex system to function. To avoid creating great confusion we need to be much more careful and explicit in our use of such ideas.
One needs to be explicitly clear about these things.
The myopic focus on short term selfishness that is often displayed, or often taken from economic discussions, is destructive at every level.
Sure – we all must look out for our own self interest, and that needs to be seen in the context of: the more we are able to see that such self interest is intimately connected to the self interest of all others on many different scales of both time and complexity, the greater the probability that we will achieve long term outcomes that are actually in our own (and everyone else’s) self interest.
It needs to be a fundamental rule of civilised society that anyone found to have taken benefit by destroying value for another, by any mechanism, will have all such benefit taken and redistributed to others if intentional, and will make such reparations as are reasonable if unintentional.
And before this thesis is attacked by Swami Cat or any other, let me be explicitly clear that I am not talking about favouring central control. I am a classical liberal in the most abstract of senses, in that I am all about individual survival and individual freedom, and I do that in a cooperative context that acknowledges the power of cooperation (with as many attendant strategies as are required to prevent cheating, which necessitates a never ending recursive path of exploration of strategy spaces, proving the old addage that the “price of freedom is eternal vigilance”). And what I am very clearly saying, is that a market based set of value measures, which are based upon scarcity, are no longer a sufficient method of coordinating activity within the sort of highly cooperative society that is required to allow individuals a reasonable probability of living a very long time (many thousands of years, that is now on the very near horizon of being technically possible). I am all about decentralisation, individualisation of all components of production, yet with high speed communication that enables cooperation and delivers security at many levels.
It is a great thing to create new goods and services that are genuinely in the long term benefit of all, and it is dangerous to all to create false illusions of such things (which is arguably what most of advertising and finance and politics and religion is about today).
And no one is all seeing. We all are hampered in our projections of possible futures by the many necessary levels of simplifying assumptions we must make in order to be able to model anything at all, in anywhere near real time, of this amazing complexity within which we exist.
It is now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that our individual experiential realities are not reality itself, but models of reality constructed by our subconscious neural networks. To a very large degree, the agreement most have about such things is more an artifact of shared cultural experience than it is about the degree of accuracy of our models to reality itself.
So it is a very complex and very deeply dimensional structure, this understanding of what we are, and the classes of processes involved in what we are, and in what many of our social institutions (like our concepts of economy) are.
And NO – economies are NOT all about competition, and competition is an important component of aspects of being – and by the time we get to self aware human beings who are consciously over-riding most of the default systems delivered by genetic and cultural history with systems selected as being more relevant to the currently exponentially changing information environment – economies and evolution are much more about cooperation, and the seemingly infinite set of possible attendant strategies one can employ at potentially infinitely recursive levels, to stabilise high level cooperation and prevent the destruction of cooperatives by cheating strategies.
And one such class of strategies is the decentralisation and distribution of power.
And a subclass of that strategy is developing fully automated systems that deliver universal abundance of all the essential goods and services that allow individual human beings to self actualise by whatever path they responsibly choose (where responsibility in this sense involves acknowledging their many levels of role in minimising risk profiles within the cooperative).