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Ok….last week Ferrebeekeeper proposed brainstorming some fundamentally new ways of doing things to help us out of the worldwide social sclerosis of the last two decades. Time is swiftly marching on… Where are the ideas already? Well, it turns out it is hard to reinvent the world (especially if you are tired out by working at a meaningless & incomprehensible dayjob which you are no good at) and…well…actually, maybe that is a great place to start! Let’s take a look at the worldwide economy, the “invisible hand” which compels so much our behavior. Specifically, let’s launch some broadsides at the self-dealing field of economics.

Sadly, in this iteration of the worldwide society, “the economy” has more recognizable power over your day-to-day life than probably any other entity. Such a conceit is nonsense, of course. If something were to go a tiny bit wrong with, for example, the sun, it could scour away life on the planet in an instant with a bullwhip of crazy radiation (other stars which are not so temperate produce this kind of solar flare all of the time). Yet all of the world’s stellar physicists could probably fit in a Denny’s, whereas there are more economists then there are crabeater seals (one of the most numerous large mammal left in the wild). These highly paid specialists (the economists, not the crabeater seals) accomplish very little except to fill our world with fallacies and misery. How did we end up with such fumble-fingered mechanics tending the great engine which powers all of our enterprises and hopes?

Economists study the ways that humans allocate and use resources. The dismal scientists try to frame basic rules based on the behavior which they observe and measure. Equipped with these axioms and principles, the economists then posit more productive and efficient ways to allocate resources and achieve certain desired outcomes. It is a famously boring and technocratic field filled with statisticians (and even more exotic varieties of advanced number crunchers). A few of the top performers get Nobel prizes or highly paid sinecures in academia. A handful more become talking heads or pundits. The majority are shipped off to be managers, financial consultants, CFOs, finance advisers, and the like.

Unfortunately, economists are infamous for getting all of their predictions and blueprints completely wrong! Just as medieval physicians could not save patients and medieval astronomers could not explain the motions of the stars, there is are basic reasons that economists are not good at explaining or modeling the economy.

Bacterial colonies in petri dish.

At an individual level humans resemble cruel and intemperate monkeys (for good reason–since that is exactly what we are) but seen through a god’s eye view at a global level we look more like a series of codependent yet competing bacterial colonies. This is the critical idea of today’s post. Economics pretends to be a hard-edged applied science like physics or mechanical engineering, but people do not behave like energy vectors or pistons. We really are more like bacterial mats, or corals, or colonies of crab-eater seals. If economics took its language and methodology from evolutionary biology (macro economics) or behavioral biology (micro economics), the discipline would become vastly more efficient at understanding and describing complex human systems of resource use. I suspect that we would also become much better at predicting and guiding our activities in useful and sustainable ways.

The idea that biology is a better template for understanding the activities of people (who are known biological entities) is hardly a new one. The great philosophers and thinkers who invented economics borrowed liberally from the forest and the farm to explain their new discipline. But alas, many of these ideas were burned away in the blast furnaces of the industrial revolution and in the mechanistic efficiency drives of hard-nosed capitalism. After Smith, Bentham, and Stuart Mill, economics quickly fell into the hands not of utilitarians but of rigid formalists, and there it has languished ever since!

Perhaps the great problem with economics is that it is paid for by patrons who have already decided exactly what they want (more of what we have right now, thank you). Economists got bought out. Those think tanks and endowed chairs are paid for by Koch brothers and their ilk. Don’t even ask about the second tier economists (who work as CFOs rather than professors). They are too busy squeezing the balance sheet to be bothered with any other concerns.

Anyway, the net result of the philosophical and scientific errors at the heart of this academic discipline are extreme. Public policy is poisoned by a priori economic assumptions which are obviously false–like the idea that people make economic choices by rationally calculating their best interest! Take a single cursory look at the world and then tell me if you believe that Homo economicus is really at the helm.

It is a shame that I have attacked and belittled economists throughout this article (although I’ll do it again). The economists I have actually met have demonstrated enormous mathematical talent, analytical ability, practical intellect, and quantitative genius (and self-discipline!) in ways I cannot understand, much less emulate. But since their discipline is corrupted by dogmatic faith that people’s behavior fits highly mechanical models (and by moneyed interests) these virtues do not much help us move forward.

All of this is starting to change, however, and there are economists who dream of reclaiming their scholarly discipline from the money men and business weasels. The real point of today’s post is to introduce an economics website which which uses the broader ideas of biology and sociology to inform economic thought. The website is called “evonomics” and it is filled with brilliant insights into how we actually work and spend (and how we could do much better). As you have probably gleaned from even this short essay, even the powerful tools of biology and psychology don’t fully address the full spectrum of economic concerns. Questions of what is fair and what is desirable–humanities questions!–enter into economics as well. As it uses evolutionary biology to rewrite the economics textbook, evonomics also makes space for such liberal arts concerns. After all, humans MADE the economy. We can remake it in better ways, if we can only think and plan better. We will talk more about this, but for the moment, check out that website (and, of course, let me know what you think).

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2021