Saturday, December 31, 2011

Natural Selection of Economic Models

We are now closing the year 2011, which has been remarkably like 2010. Continued global warming, continued opposition to the teaching of evolution and global warming, continued economic uncertainty, and another year with a Congress that considers its sole function to be partisan strife.

But one of these years, enormous changes will have to come. As economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out decades ago, and as environmental entrepreneur Paul Gilding has pointed out in his 2011 book The Great Disruption, growth cannot continue forever in a finite world. Gilding says that our current economic system will collapse, since it depends totally on economic growth. It will have to be replaced by an equilibrium economy. Gilding points out that this inevitable transition will not occur smoothly or gradually. At some point, a critical mass of people will realize that, in a finite world in which global warming will disrupt our lives, we have to change. Many of us realize this already; and we are a rapidly growing minority. The change will be disruptive, since entire industries (such as coal and oil) have refused to admit that we are about to collide with natural ecological limits; they will fight to keep people not just using but wasting natural resources. Big corporations will continue to demand government bailouts for their own business mistakes. They preach capitalism but demand socialism. The resulting chaos, in a world with natural disasters and scarce food, will not be pretty. One of these years—it might be 2012—will make 2011 seem like a very uneventful year.

Gilding says that we will emerge from the chaos with a new and sustainable economic system. He says that it is the next stage of human evolution. When I first read this, I assumed that he simply did not know what evolution was. But after I had read more of his book, I could see that he may be right. He did not mean biological evolution. He meant cultural evolution—some memes are propagated more than others. I have written about this process in books. But after reading Gilding’s book, I found a new example of cultural evolution: the economy.

The economy consists of many memes, which include: We have to keep growing to avoid collapse; we have to acquire ever more stuff in order to be happy; since the economy will always grow, we can put ourselves deeply into debt; ecological issues are something that we can take care of someday when we are all rich. These are the old, destructive memes that have brought our economy to the brink of disaster. But there are other economic memes: Our economy can be sustainable; happiness does not require lots of stuff; we can live within our means; we need to fit our economy into ecological limits now. There are millions of people (not enough millions) who believe this second set of memes; and there are hundreds of companies that abide by them. That is, in the world of economic memes, there is diversity.

And then along comes catastrophic natural selection: an economic collapse. If we were all hypnotized by consumerism, then this collapse would mean extinction. However, natural selection will in this case favor the sustainability memes, which already constitute a significant minority of the memetic variation in our population. Yes, there will be an enormous collapse; but many individuals and corporations are at least partly ready for it. There are, for example, hundreds of alternative energy companies ready to fill the void that will be left by the downfall of the petroleum industry.

This sounds like good news. I wish I could believe it, but I believe that political conservatives will prevent us from making enough changes to survive the coming collapse; they will suppress the solutions. The CEOs of financial corporations, for example, want to keep us in debt rather than to let us live without owing them money. Like a bunch of walnut trees suppressing other plant species by poisoning the forest with juglones (a process known as allelopathy), these CEOs are suppressing the sustainability memes. But they cannot wipe them out. At some point, a sustainable world may emerge, by the process of cultural evolution.

On this last day of the year, we sigh in relief that we have not yet fallen into disaster. We look forward to a new year in which, if we are lucky, the memes of sustainability will have a chance to make progress, and in which the collapse will not yet occur. If we are lucky.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Altruism: The Third Alternative for Ecology and Evolution

Consider the following to be my holiday message to you. It is adapted from an essay I wrote for my website.

I recently read a book entitled The Penguin and the Leviathan, by Yochai Benkler, a leading scholar in business research. I have read many books about altruism, many of them by scientists such as Frans deWaal (The Age of Empathy), Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good), and Martin Nowak (Super Cooperators). These books repeatedly make the point that individuals within animal species, individual humans, and businesses can profit from being nice and generous to others. Altruism, rather than violent competition, is the most important component of “the law of the jungle.” Just ask any of the chimps that deWaal has studied. The way to the top is primarily through cooperation, not violent competition. Even apes understand this. Benkler’s book is published by Crown Business, a division of a major New York publisher. Its intended audience is not science buffs but business leaders. In the title, the Penguin is Tux, the icon of Linux, whose business model is cooperation rather than top-down command, and the Leviathan is the cynical view of life presented centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes.

Benkler, though not a scientist, has done a very good job of summarizing the evolutionary science of altruism. But the thing that opened my eyes the most was that Benkler presented altruism as a third alternative for how a society could operate. The other two ways are state control and free market. We usually think that these are our only two choices. But, as Benkler explains, this is not true.

Both state control (as exemplified by dictators on the political right or the political left) and free market economics operate from the assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish. State control attempts to force people to not be selfish. The free market tries to capitalize upon those utterly selfish economic machines known as humans. But Benkler points out that altruism is a fundamental instinct of the human mind. As Michael Shermer said, it feels good to be good; humans enjoy being altruistic. Altruism motivates much of what we do.

Our only hope, from Benkler’s viewpoint, is to build our society and economic system in a way that facilitates altruism. Governments should not try to solve all social and economic problems by law and by creating big agencies; governments should be (in my words) conduits of the altruism that already exists in people’s minds. Governments should be altruism enablers. Similarly businesses should embrace altruism, appealing to their customers’ instincts to want to create a better world for everybody. Customers are selfish, but also altruistic. Customers are increasingly offended by corporations that display conspicuous selfishness; that assume the customers are merely selfish; or that use little greenwashing gimmicks to make themselves look environmentally friendly or socially altruistic. We customers are not stupid, nor are we totally selfish. We are (some of us more than others) partly altruistic and we expect our governments and businesses to also be altruistic.

Benkler makes the point that right now, when dictatorships are falling and the free market has proven ineffective enough that it has shaken the very faith of Alan Greenspan himself, is the time when altruism has a chance to influence the very structure of the economy and government. Governments and business CEOs have been good only at spending money, with disastrous consequences that nobody can ignore any longer.

Altruism, perhaps the greatest gift of evolution, is also the only way to solve our environmental problems. Neither of the other alternatives, government fiat or the profit motive by itself, have significantly deflected our worldwide momentum toward ecological disaster.

Joy to the world? Altruism? Maybe.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Statement of Respect

This morning, my colleague from graduate school, Art Zangerl, died after a long battle with cancer. He personified what it means to be a dedicated scientist. He had a zeal for using science to understand not just his own area of study (coevolution of insects and herbivores) but the whole human experience of the world. I remember him doing research while we were still graduate students; he would nearly run from one room to another, carrying electrophoresis gels. This was a new technology back then, and Art studied the PGI locus to understand population variability in weeds. He was never afraid to embrace new technology, while not discarding the old. I remember him sitting at a calculator that was the size of a small table, a Wang, which used a cassette tape to store its calculation. This was long after calculators were hand-held. He also had a passion for studying things (such as invasive weeds) that had an important effect on the human economy. He worked with May Berenbaum, who may be the most famous entomologist in the world. Among other things, they studied photophytodermatitis (or is it phytophotodermatitis?) caused by wild parsnips. Everyone respected, admired, and loved Art.

In the photo posted above, taken about 1981, Art (behind the equipment) and Mark Boudreau (who is now a professor of sustainable agriculture) were using an infra-red gas analyzer to measure photosynthesis. You can see that it was a home-made apparatus, and Art was a major contributor to its construction.

Art’s wife posted his final message online right after his passing. One of the things that he regretted seeing in our society today was the large number of people who attack science general and evolution in particular in the name of religion. He wrote, “Evolution is like a magic key. Once you understand it, really understand it, so much becomes clear.” He said that evolution helps us understand the darker side of human nature, but also what he called the social side, such as altruism. Although evolution has made us a species capable of hatred, we are also a species that can fight against hatred and oppression. Art particularly admired the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I hope that I can leave behind as good a legacy of honest intellectual inquiry and genuine human warmth as Art Zangerl.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Staying on Message

This is just a brief note to say that, in this blog, I will attempt to stay “on message” about evolutionary science and related subjects. Inevitably this will take me often into politics and religion, which would not happen if politicians and religious leaders would just focus on their own fields without trying to use evolution as a whipping boy to pick up votes and donations.

I assumed that other evolution blogs would do the same. I was disappointed to see, in August 2011, that Jerry Coyne’s blog was taken up by lots of photos of impressive architecture around St. Petersburg, and even the long-running and respected blog Panda’s Thumb is frequently used for just posting pretty sunset photos. P. Z. Myers’ Pharyngula blog also seems to wander around quite a bit. Nothing wrong with these things, and Jerry Coyne is one of the leaders of modern evolutionary thought, but my intention is to make this blog a useful place for you to learn about evolution. I hope you send your friends to my blog for useful information about evolution. See also my website, where I have a section with lots of photos, but rather than just being pretty sunset photos, they are photos with stories to tell about evolution and biodiversity.

Friday, December 2, 2011

So the Appendix Isn’t Worthless After All

The vermiform (“wormlike”) appendix is an extension of the human large intestine. It is homologous to a part of the caecum of other mammals. Humans (and cats) are among the most finicky eaters in the mammal world. Humans use intelligence to choose foods that are safe and nutritious to eat, at least we did so under the prehistoric circumstances in which our bodies evolved. But most mammals, particularly herbivores and omnivores, just eat stuff, and rely on their intestines to process the food. Dogs just gobble things down. As for cats, which are not necessarily any more intelligent than dogs, I do not know why they are finicky. (One of our cats once ate a ribbon off of a Christmas tree, not an impressive example of intelligence.) An important part of intestinal food processing in most mammals is the caecum, in which bacteria break down many otherwise indigestible food materials. Humans have big brains and small caecums; most mammals have smaller brains and larger caecums; once again, I have no explanation for cats. In humans, part of the caecum has degenerated into the appendix, which really does look like a worm, and is not large enough for any significant amount of food to enter. It is a dead end tunnel off the side of the intestine.

The human vermiform appendix is largely considered to be vestigial and worthless. But it turns out to not be entirely worthless. Sometimes disease bacteria multiply in your intestine, and drive out the good bacteria that normally live there. Then the disease bacteria eventually die away, if you are lucky. Eventually the good bacteria return to their intestinal home. But where do they come from? Apparently, many of the good bacteria hide in the little appendix corridor, and emerge after the bacterial war is over. The appendix is therefore a refuge for good bacteria. This is particularly important for modern people who take oral antibiotics, which devastate the bacterial populations in the main part of the intestine, but not on the appendix.

But even though the appendix is not worthless, it is still vestigial. It is reduced in size and function compared to our mammalian ancestors. In humans it no longer serves a digestive function. It has degenerated over evolutionary time, though not far enough to have become worthless. It remains today, as in Darwin’s day, an excellent example of a vestigial organ.

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