Ecosystems and economies
Ecosystems are like economies. Creatures in ecosystems evolve to occupy every ecological niche. Agents in economic systems evolve to occupy every economic niche. Every occupied niche produces in new niches and evolution fills them, too.
Ecosystems have one rule: survive (and reproduce). Nature does not play favorites. The rules are the same for parasites, creatures that harm or kill their hosts; for mutualists, creatures that mutually benefit others; and commensalists, creatures that gain from another creature without helping it or harming it.
From that one rule, we can derive some guidelines. For parasites: don’t kill all your hosts. If you do, you die, too. Successful parasites learn not to kill all their hosts; and some parasites even evolve into mutualists. It’s not that they’re nice. It’s just that helping your host survive is a good way to make sure that you’ve got lots of hosts to support you. So the guideline is: you’ll do better if you help those around you. But you don’t have to.
Creatures in ecosystems evolve to maximize use of available resources. There’s only so much air, so much sunlight, so much water, so much land, so much of various minerals. Creatures evolve so that--in sum--they consume more and more. Over time ecosystems and the creatures within them become more complex, because more complex systems can use resources more efficiently.
There’s no purpose to its evolution other than survival. Ecosystems don’t care whether the creatures in them are cooperative or competitive, or a combination; whether the creatures are beautiful or ugly; devious or direct. Nature only wants things that survive.
Some ecosystems--fewer and fewer--operate without human intervention. When humans get involved, they can direct--but never entirely control what grows. Humans can add new rules like: “produce things that humans desire,” and “don’t be a weed.” Humans can enforce their rules by poisoning whatever they do not like, fertilizing and feeding what they do like, by selective breeding, by introducing new species, and by genetic engineering.
Plants, animals, bacteria, and virii are among the life forms that inhabit natural ecosystems. Groups of these creatures, acting together, behave differently than their individual components and can be thought of as life forms in their own right.
Human beings and groups of human beings are the life forms that inhabit economic systems. The groups include tribes, villages, cities, nations, armies, and churches. Even though groups of humans are composed of individual humans, they also exhibit new behavior that emerges from the group/
Absent human intervention in an economic system, parasites, mutualists, and commensalists would all be subject to the same “survive or die” rules. But economies, like human-controlled ecosystems, have human designers who make additional rules. A common rule is “don’t be a parasite.” But when autocrats--who are often parasites and live at the expense of the people they rule--make the rules, the rules are designed to keep those particular parasites and their cronies in power. So the rule is “don’t be a parasite--unless you’re one of us.”
For centuries economic systems consisted of humans and small tribes of humans. Those tribes evolved rules well suited to helping those systems survive--even if not all of the individuals and groups within the system thrived. equally Later, larger groups evolved based on geography--villages, towns, cities, nations; based on common beliefs; religions, for example; based on common interests--guilds, for example. Along with the larger groups came new rules. By trial and error--evolution’s only method, rules evolved that helped larger and larger groups survive.
Now a new economic life form has arisen: the modern corporation. In a future post, I’ll talk about the new challenge that corporations present.