Generative Economics

Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two generative components: mutation and natural selection. Mutation generates genetic variants and hence phenotypes; natural selection operates on these to produce differential survival. Neither of these generative processes involves intention or intelligence. Thus we have biological novelty without intentional intelligent design. Both processes are blind and driven by non-mental causes. We have creativity without a creator. But Darwin also recognized what he calls artificial selection, as with the selective breeding of dogs (or horses and flowers). Here human beings intentionally direct the course of evolution according to their own preferences, producing dog breeds that would not arise by natural selection. This is not selection by nature but selection by human design and desire. Of course, the process of generation is still natural not artificial: dog breeders rely on the genes to generate dog variants. They don’t make poodles from scratch; they just interbreed dogs and let the genes do their work. So here we have a case of natural generation and artificial selection to be added to the far more common case of natural generation and natural selection. Dog breeders don’t even know how to generate dog variants artificially; they depend upon natural reproduction.

In principle there could be artificial generation combined with natural selection: a type of intelligence creates an organism and then turns it loose in the world to the tender mercies of nature. You could genetically engineer organisms and then let nature select the good from the bad. In effect that is what happens with many human artifacts: they are intelligently created but left for nature mindlessly to destroy or preserve (as with architectural ruins and plastic bags). What about artificial design combined with artificial selection? Can there be intelligently created entities that are then intelligently selected? Of course, there can: machines created by humans and selected by humans to be used as they see fit. Motorcars are propagated by these two modes of generation: first they are designed and manufactured by the use of intelligence; then they are bought and sold in the marketplace by a process of intelligent selection, intentionally and consciously. So there are four logical possibilities in all: natural generation and natural selection, natural generation and artificial selection, artificial generation and natural selection, and artificial generation and artificial selection. Entities can come into existence and reproduce (or be reproduced) by any of these four methods.

There is something strange in Darwin’s terminology, because so-called artificial selection is itself a natural process. The mind is natural and it is what directs selective breeding; there is nothing super-natural going on here.[1]Bees select flowers and hence direct the course of flower evolution: this is not “artificial”. When humans selectively breed animals for their own purposes this is an aspect of their species-specific nature. It would be better to speak of intentional intelligent selection versus selection that is neither. For intelligence is part of nature too. Still, we can keep the terminology for convenience. The question I am interested in is the nature of economic activity; and what I want to maintain is that economic activity is continuous with biology. It is just another form of biological generation. Now it is true that (so far as I know) other animals don’t engage in economic activity, though it would serve my purpose if they did; but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining such activity in animals. So suppose we encountered a species of bird that manufactures nests that it exchanges with other birds for food. Instead of just building a nest for its own use, it builds nests “for sale”. This has become part of its genetic make-up, as much as nest-building itself. We can think of it as instinctual and automatic, like birdsong, and not as reflective and flexible: birds that exchanged nests for food in the past (as a result of some mutation) did better than birds that kept their nests to themselves. Thus a primitive bird economy develops. In such a case we would say that the entire process is part of the bird’s biological endowment. The “buyer” birds would select nests according to their own criteria and a form of competition might develop, which would lead to a selection process. In just such a way human commerce might have originated: humans capable of exchange do better than humans incapable of it. This would also be as biological as digestion and sexual reproduction, whatever the later elaborations (banks, money). It is a form of social behavior rooted in biological imperatives.

So there are two principles of generation at work here: generating the nests and their being selected. Both are “artificial” in Darwin’s strained sense, since they involved goal-directed action. The bird makes the nest not its genes and other birds do the selecting not brute nature. But this doesn’t exclude the phenomenon from the realm of biology. Or again, consider those ants that enslave other ant populations: these “brood parasites” seize the eggs of other ants and bring them back to their own nest where they carry out the work of their “slave-owners”.  Again, I don’t know of any documented cases of ants that then trade their slaves with other ant slave-owners, but the idea is not beyond reason. What if we encountered an ant species that did just that, perhaps because they were better raiders than their potential trading partners? The “buyers” exchange food for slaves, which they find a bargain. This would be an entirely biological arrangement, not introducing any new non-natural principle into biology. Some ants are natural-born slave-traders! No doubt this is deplorable of them, but it is biologically possible. They thus have a nice little economy going here—a system of exchange trading one sort of good for another.

I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest that human economies are analogous. Perhaps they even arose from some such primitive beginnings way back with our ancient ancestors in Africa. In any case, we can say that human productivity and the capacity for economic exchange are part of our biological nature. It turns out that the biological realm includes more than just natural generation and natural selection (in Darwin’s restricted sense); it includes the kind of intentional intelligent design and exchange that we find in human social groups. We can imagine our remote ancestors exchanging primitive tools for other tools or for food; we now do it with computers and cars. Thus from a lofty philosophical perspective economics is a branch of biology involving the basic twin generative processes: first make the product, then sell the product (ensure it is selected by purchasers). There is no discontinuity between genes and nature, on the one hand, and products and purchasers, on the other. There is a smooth transition from natural selection through artificial selection through economic selection. Darwin also included sexual selection in his list of types of selection; I am adding economic selection. Both of these are selection by conscious agents (peacocks and purchasers), but that doesn’t make them beyond the range of biology. Minds are a part of biology too. The dichotomy of culture and biology is artificial and misleading; economics belongs with both.[2]That is, economic culture is just another type of biological phenomenon. It is the same with business culture: that too is continuous with biology. Specifically, it involves the two generative components I have identified: creating the product and then marketing it, i.e. offering it up for selection by purchasers. The structure is the same. Markets are arenas of voluntary action, to be sure, but that doesn’t put them outside of biology or nature. In particular, economics is a generative science in the sense that biology is: it involves the generation of entities from raw materials and the generation of further entities by means of market forces. Production is like embryogenesis and buying and selling is like the selective survival of the fittest. Products go extinct if no one buys them, as animals go extinct if nature stops selecting them. We might even say that the Darwinian notion of natural competition is modeled on the notion of economic competition. Animals compete with each other in much the same way that products do. And of course the two intersect, as when animals are bought and sold (some breeds do better in the marketplace than others).

Just as Darwin’s theory is a theory of evolutionary change, so too economics is concerned with economic change—with how goods and services succeed each other in time. It is a dynamic science not a static science. The idea of a purely structural economics is a misguided one: economies are changing evolving structures just like animal species. The change can be slow judged by human standards, but the entire biological world is in constant flux; so too is the economic world. Supply and demand are forever changing. From a meta-economic point of view, then, economics shares the basic structure of biology (the same is true of linguistics and psychology—and even philosophy). In linguistics we are used to the idea that a grammar generates an infinite array of sentences—it is not merely a structural description; in economics too we should also think of economic mechanisms as generative—of products and of their adoption. A successful product is very like a thriving organism: there will be many instances of them and they will outperform the competition. This is the theoretical framework to adopt when considering the foundations of economics as a science. Economics is a generative biological science (so it is not like mathematics or logic). Capitalism, say, is a species of economic system that replaced feudalism, as mammals replaced dinosaurs. And it is still evolving into variant forms.

Let me suggest another analogy: verbal communication. A speaker is engaged on two generative tasks: (a) producing a grammatically well-formed sentence and (b) ensuring that she is understood by the hearer. The former does not entail the latter, which requires an additional generative effort—sufficient volume, getting the hearer’s attention, saying something interesting, etc. Similarly, the genes must produce an anatomically well-formed organism and one that will survive the pressures of natural selection—particularly, those arising from competition for resources and mates. Similarly again, a product must not only be functionally well designed but must also achieve market penetration in a competitive economic environment. The entrepreneur is like a speaker striving to be heard in a cacophonous world: she needs a sound product but also the means to be heard by potential consumers. It is necessary to generate supply and demand (hence advertising etc.). Whether an animal will survive depends on the world it confronts as well as on its internal structure; but the same is true of a product. A speaker faces the same problem: first produce a good sentence but then ensure it is heard and understood. You have to create understanding as well as what is understood. These are different (though connected) tasks. So economics is not just a generative science; it is a doubly generative science.[3]


[1]I discuss this in “The Language of Evolution”, Philosophical Provocations(2017).

[2]I defend this view in “Biology and Culture: an Untenable Dualism”.

[3]This essay is a sequel to my earlier essay, “Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist”.

2 replies
  1. says:

    With respect to the exercise of human intelligence, more generally. There is the generation and selection of hypotheses in belief formation (on the road to, “understanding”—mostly in terms of abduction), and there is the generation and selection of options/choices or actions in decision-making. Varying are the criteria and constraints, culturally and biologically evolved, with respect both to the generation phase and the selection phase of each particularized sub-category of belief-formation or decision-making. Verbal and non-verbal communication, like economic exchange (production and selection of goods and services), is a proper part of this more general exercise, notwithstanding the hard-wired component in producing and understanding “well-formed” formulas in a natural language proper( the “pragmatics” of human communication are ofcourse the soft-wired component..


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