Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Evolving Economics

On the Origin of $pecie$

My parents religiously watch PBS NewsHour, sometimes even over dinner. Throughout high school I would watch it with them, and I have grown to miss hearing about the latest news that PBS covers daily. I recently heard about a popular new book by naturalist and economist Bob Frank, who in his book relates the evolution of species to the market economy. This greatly interested me, since I plan to relate biology to another field like sociology. When my Dad called me and told me about Tuesday night’s PBS coverage of Bob Frank’s The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good I went to the PBS website and watched the episode. In his interview, Bob Frank explains his comparison of Darwin’s evolutionary theory with the market economy. He even goes as far to say that the honor of being regarded as ‘The Father of Economics’ should be bestowed upon Charles Darwin. Frank uses Darwin’s theory of evolution to describe the negative effects of competition on a species. This is described by traits favored by the gene pool that help a species in one aspect of life but hinder them in another. Frank uses the example of male Elk – those with larger antlers than their competitors win battles between males, so that mutations in the species that coded for larger antlers are very strongly favored. Generation by generation, Elk antlers have grown in size so that now bull elk have massive four-foot long antlers. These antlers are great for winning interspecies battles, but horrible for retreating into cover when being chased into a dense forest by a pack of hungry wolves. The bull Elk’s antlers get tangled in low hanging branches, and the animal is slowed down and more easily killed by its predators. This phenomenon of evolution captures the conflict between individuals and the group. From an economic standpoint, the survival of the fittest comes at a cost to the 99%.

Frank uses a particular species of seals as another example. In this species of seal, 4% of the males father 88% of the offspring. This can be related to humans in the sense that the children of the rich often become rich themselves, due to connections fostered for them by their wealthy and powerful parents. In modern societies, incomes concentrated at the top, cause the rich to continue spending patterns, consequently raising the bar for the standard of living of that society. This reality relates to why money conditions in the middle class have become more difficult since the 1950’s. As the rich continue to build larger mansions, people’s standard of living goes up, causing middle class families to spend possibly 50% more on a house than is affordable.

Frank concludes by stating that there are two sides to market economics: the invisible hand of competition which makes companies and their products more ‘fit’, and the helping hand of the group and the government, which is supposed to impose regulations when the cost outweighs the benefits. Chief competitors such as Henry Ford and Steve Jobs can be compared to the individuals within a species that benefit from a small mutation. These mutations not only help individuals, but they also promote the prosperity of the species by leaving copies of that mutation to be passed down to generations to come; in economic terms: the greatest good for the greatest number.

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