Geerat J. Vermeij is a Dutch-born professor of geology at the University of California at Davis. Blind from the age of three, he graduated from Princeton University in 1968 and received his Ph.D. in biology and geology from Yale University in 1971.
An evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, he studies marine mollusks both as fossils and as living creatures. He started writing about his Escalation hypothesis in the 1970s. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. In 2000 Vermeij was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.
His books include Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life, A Natural History of Shells, Privileged Hands, Nature: An Economic History, and The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization.
Grégoire Canlorbe: According to a predominant view in philosophy and in the social sciences, the social hierarchy is an ad hoc cultural construction and not a biological trait. Man is born equal in terms of wealth as well as in terms of social status. Nature spawns neither poor people nor rich people, neither servants nor masters, neither workers nor bosses. Hierarchical relationships are merely cultural, added onto our biological nature (rather than innate). Is this popular view founded, at least in part, in your opinion?
Geerat J. Vermeij: It is true that the human hierarchy is cultural, but there is a substantial cultural inheritance. Although one’s origins can be overcome, the cultural heritability of phenomena such as poverty and status is nonetheless strong, reinforced by epigenetic effects.
Inequality and imperfection, however, appear to be universal and necessary accompaniments to life itself. Whenever organisms interact, one party will almost always gain more or lose less than the other as they compete or cooperate. Very rarely will the outcomes be identical for the participants. Although their fortunes may reverse in the long run, with the underdog persisting longer and ultimately gaining the upper hand, the short-term advantage during interactions tends to belong to the party with the greater power and reach.
This principle applies, for example, to the evolutionary relationship between predator and prey. As a rule, predators exert more intense selection on their prey than prey do on their attackers. Not only do they often kill their victims, but they restrict the times and places in which vulnerable prey can be active. Prey species become important as agents of selection on their attackers only if they are dangerous. Poisonous snakes, stinging wasps, biting crabs, and kicking moose can inflict significant injury on a would-be predator, and could therefore influence the predator’s behavior. Mobbing—large numbers of relatively innocuous prey ganging up on an attacker, as happens when songbirds mount a group defense against a hawk— may also diminish the evolutionary advantage that predators hold over their prey.
Inequalities abound at every scale of biological organization. Ecosystems in which plants and plankton fix carbon by means of photosynthesis subsidize ecosystems that run entirely on food sources derived from photosynthesis. Life on the great abyssal plain of the deep sea depends completely on the steady rain of dead organisms and their excrement falling from the sunlit waters above. It is in the top few hundred meters of the ocean where there is sufficient light for phytoplankton— single-celled life-forms capable of harvesting light and taking up dissolved minerals for photosynthesis— to produce most of the food on which all other living things in the ocean rely. Over the course of evolution, this nutritional subsidy has extended to a subsidy of lineages. The sunlit zone has been the source of most deep-sea groups of organisms, whereas the deep sea has contributed only a handful of cave-dwelling and polar species to the shallow-water ecosystems of the ocean. Land life on the desert shores of Peru, southwestern Africa, and northwestern Mexico is subsidized by marine life in the productive waters just offshore, because seabirds feeding on fish ferry food and feces to shore. Elsewhere, life in the sea benefits from nutrients coming in from rivers that drain rich ecosystems on land. In each of these cases, the more productive system subsidizes, and therefore has a disproportionate influence on, the less productive one.
Even the most egalitarian human societies exhibit inequalities in income and status among individuals, among tribes, among institutions, and among nation-states. Insofar as the price of goods and services is determined by adequate information about supply and demand, producers and merchants possess more information about, and have greater control over, commodities than do individual consumers. Through advertising, they can manipulate demand; and by tracking patterns of what goods and services are sold when, where, and to whom, well-organized companies can predict demand and adjust supply accordingly. Companies simply possess and create a better hypothesis about supply and demand than individuals do, and therefore prices are set largely by them. Their information is, of course, far from complete and may even be inaccurate, but the power it bestows nonetheless remains chiefly in the hands of well-organized enterprises. Only when consumers or labor unions themselves become organized into powerful counterweights to business is this economic inequality lessened or reversed.
The important point is that inequalities arising from differences in access to information or power are not just manifestations of human nature, but pervade the whole of the living world.
Grégoire Canlorbe: In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett refers to evolutionary principles as “universal acid” in order to emphasize their all-encompassing explanatory power. According to you, one might equally employ the same metaphor to express the power and reach of the economic perspective, which you see as fundamentally identical to the evolutionary worldview.
Could you explicit and develop this iconoclast point of view? Why do living beings necessarily evolve in an economic world of trade, competition, opportunities and challenges?
Geerat J. Vermeij: Like humans, other living things inevitably compete for (and cooperate to gain access to) locally scarce resources. Competition and resource cooperation are fundamentally economic phenomena. In evolution, survival and reproduction require sufficient resources; therefore, natural selection among phenotypes is fundamentally also an economic phenomenon.
In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett indeed characterizes evolution as “universal acid” to emphasize the power of evolutionary thinking to penetrate very nook of human knowledge. But this is a grim image, a metaphor that calls to mind the satanic power feared by doubters and deniers. Evolution is not some corrosive agent, but a universal elixir that enriches those willing to taste it.
Understanding its mechanisms and consequences yields an emotionally satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, and deeply meaningful worldview in which the human condition is bathed in a new light.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Trade and capital have been traditionally held for a uniquely human form of organization, along with the institutions that make it possible. It is highly symptomatic in this regard and unsurprising that Jean-Baptiste Say, as a founder of modern economics, held the following speech in his Cours complet d’économie politique pratique.
“The ability to raise capital exceeds the intelligence of animals. It is one of man’s privileges. Any capital is a production tool. What bees or ants do gather, are provisions, not tools. When they form stores in favorable season, they consume them in the wrong season. This is the effect of instinct only, not a premeditated design; and contrary to man, these accumulated products never serve as a means of getting more. The indefinite accumulation of capital is, for man, a way to multiply his strength to infinity. Along with the ability to conclude trade agreements, this is the main cause of the power of our species over the other beings of creation… If our intelligence served us only as a means to ambush animals and make them our pasture, or to prevent us from their attacks, our intelligence would likely be defeated by theirs. But gathering the production tools, exchanging waves against works, creating a product much more we can consume and bartering the surplus for what we lack, that is what we can do and what they are incapable of.”
What would you retort to these typical claims in defense of a more subtle and more balanced comparison of natural and human economies?
Geerat J. Vermeij: It is undeniable that humans have created institutions with no parallels in the rest of nature. But the contrasts that have been made between the human and natural economies are, I believe, overstated.
For example, many herbivores consume plants in such a way that the productivity of their food plants increases, both because herbivores nourish the plants and because they often remove less productive parts preferentially. Such positive feedbacks are extremely common in nature, and have in my view been crucial to the rising trend in productivity over time, on land as well as in the sea.
Humans have exploited such positive feedbacks much faster and to a greater extent; but even agriculture, which powered the human population to unprecedented levels, has many parallels in nature.
Unique to us, however, is the use of fossil and nuclear fuels and our reliance on electricity. As for capital, we employ money as a means of exchange, and we have created all sorts of institutions concerning the regulation of money. This has no doubt enabled long-distance trade, which is, in effect, a scaled-up version of trade that is very widespread in nature.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The evolution of living entities, including social superorganisms, towards an increased degree of diversity and novelty takes the form of two distinct processes, first outlined by Herbert Spencer: differentiation and integration.
According to you, there exists a positive retroaction between collective power, competition, and this multifaceted trend towards increased diversity. In this regard, within limits imposed by external conditions and by existing technology, economic systems tend to increase simultaneously in productivity, diversity, and opportunity. These trends are neither constant nor irreversible, but the conditions in which they prevail are vastly more common and longer lasting than are the disruptions that halt or temporarily reverse the trends.
Could you document this increasingly higher economic productivity that has been evident from the earliest signs of life about 3,5 Ga to the present high-energy civilization presided over by humanity? How does human history recapitulate the much more protracted history of life as a whole?
Geerat J. Vermeij: As you point out, two fundamental processes—differentiation and recombination—yield diversity. In differentiation, an initially homogeneous unit produces daughter units or simply expands, with new parts coming to differ slightly in both form and function from the old by virtue of the accumulating and pruning of errors. In essence, this is what happens in the branching process of evolution as traditionally understood and as first outlined by Charles Darwin. In recombination (a word used here in its general sense, not in the restricted sense of genetic recombination in biology), a small number of distinct types of units— nucleotides, elements, letters of the alphabet, amino acids, zooids, cell types, and so on— come together in a vast array of configurations to form larger structures. This kind of recombination may have characterized early prokaryotic life before the branching mode of evolution became dominant. It also characterizes languages, proteins, immune systems, neural networks, compounds, communities of species, human institutions, buildings, and the genome in sexual organisms (genetic recombination).
Often, perhaps usually, recombination and branching go hand in hand, for most systems in which recombination occurs have an evolutionary history in which “lineages” can be traced by following them back through branching events to some initial state. The important point is firstly that both processes, separately and together, create diversity. Every entity thus created has the potential to spawn yet more diversity through branching or through recombination in an expanding universe of possibilities.
Secondly, diversity reflects and permits economic activity. Generally speaking, a positive feedback exists among diversity, competition, and productivity (or collective power). There is therefore a historical link between the general trend in economic systems toward increased diversity and a general trend toward increases in the power of consumers and the rate of production.
Potentially at least, every new type of unit created in a diversifying economy itself becomes a resource which another entity could exploit as a habitat, source of energy, or ally. This potential becomes reality when the resource achieves sufficient stability and predictability, either through its own activity or with the help of others. Any economic activity that enhances an entity’s own resource supply and therefore its own growth and persistence will therefore make it an increasingly profitable target for another entity to exploit or cooperate with. Increasing productivity through the harnessing and regulation of supply therefore spreads through an increasingly diverse economy, creating opportunity for old and new entities as it does so until a limit imposed by extrinsic size or some other circumstance is reached.
To economists, this kind of feedback translates into the more efficient allocation of resources among competing entities, an allocation not achievable in a monopoly or in a system of inflexible top-down control in which economic units lose all autonomy. It is this kind of feedback that creates forests, in which consumers and producers enhance one another’s prospects in spite of competition among them, and in which trees of one species often improve the soil not just for themselves but for their neighbors. Productivity and diversity beget themselves and each other, together creating a stable, relatively flexible, somewhat disturbance resistant, diversified economy with diffuse top-down control by high-energy consumers and producers.
The increase in productivity over time must be inferred indirectly from fossil evidence and from theoretical considerations. Much of it involves a faster turnover of biomass, made possible by rapid decomposition, the evolution of herbivory, which provides a short-cut to the slower process of decomposition, herbivory being the decomposition of living tissues in the guts of animals; and an increasing emphasis in photosynthesizing groups on high rates of carbon fixation, as demonstrated, for example, by a sharp increase beginning 100 Ma in the leaf-vein density of plants.
Ultimately, competition drives this trend, but it is made possible by interdependencies in the system as a whole. Positive feedbacks between herbivores and food plants, between bioturbators (active burrowers) and the plankton, and many other relationships all enable competitively superior organisms to become more productive and to gain higher metabolic rates, all indications of higher turnover. As these competitively superior organisms evolved, they created “jobs” for a vast number of subordinate species.
On very long time scales, increases in diversity have occurred in three overlapping phases: first, a rise in biochemical diversity, mostly at the prokaryote level; second, morphological diversity, hugely enhanced when animals and plants invented internal fertilization; and third, cultural diversity, almost entirely the work of our own species. Each phase has been accompanied by (and likely in part caused by) an increase in biomass turnover, or productivity.
Grégoire Canlorbe: A free-market economy, in which individuals are free to compete and trade in an unregulated environment, is generally believed to resemble the economic system that has been sustained over billion of years on the prehuman Earth.
As you point out, there is plenty of this kind of diffuse, unintentional and benign regulation in nature: it evolved in the genetic system, in the physiological regulation of the body’s internal state and in all known ecosystems. But the natural processes of competition and cooperation have also spawned central command-and-control systems, as when centralized sensory and motor functions become concentrated in the evolving brain. In other words, nature has produced systems that conform to the capitalist decentralized model as well as arrangements that more closely resemble a centralized command-and-control society.
Could you specify the conditions under which the extreme versions, the free-market economy and the central controlled model, work most efficiently? Does their alternation occur in a cyclic mode?
Geerat J. Vermeij: I have not fully worked out an answer to this important question. I suggested, and still believe, that a relatively unregulated free-market economy works best when there is the potential for economic growth, and that a more centrally regulated economy works best when growth is no longer possible or is just slow.
However, all ecosystems support powerful as well as more subordinate species, and the powerful species exert a disproportionate (and often regulatory) influence over the others; so, I see not so much a dichotomy as a continuum of regulation.
Unregulated free-market capitalism, based on uncontrolled exploitation of resources that are for all intents and purposes infinite, is like the rapid-growth, high-fecundity strategy of early flowering plants, and early mammals: it works well as long as resources are there for the taking and as long as the economy can grow and expand in the midst of continuing plenty. Central regulation arises when competition intensifies and cooperation is required for further exploiting resources or for creating new ones. The visible hand of control emerges when a system reaches a plateau, and when the ability to innovate the economy out of stagnation requires costly sacrifice. This plateau need not be absolute; a change in circumstances may tilt the system back into a state of growth and renewal.
For our species, however, politicians and the public may have to accept the possibility that, as we reach the point where the world’s productive capacity can no longer grow in the size and per-capita wealth of the population, there will be a shift toward a more centrally organized economy and government. Under such a system, conservatism— the maintenance of the status quo— will more often be chosen as the solution to problems than new costly reforms.
To avoid such rigidity, a highly regulated system must incorporate ways of responding rapidly and flexibly to unanticipated situations. For organisms, the genetic system must be complemented by an infrastructure that can react quickly. A large, complex genome of tens of thousands of genes is too small and far too slow to anticipate or respond to the pathogens and environmental signals that the organism encounters in everyday life.
In animals, the immune and nervous systems, composed of thousands of cells of just a few kinds, have evolved to respond quickly and flexibly to the conditions in which individuals find themselves. Although the basic components of these systems are encoded in the genome, these components interact and combine in myriad, autonomous ways, creating a nearly limitless array of states that can deal with all sorts of challenges, from new germs to threats from predators. It is the combinatorial potential of these subsidiary systems rather than direct specification of all possible responses by genes that makes rapid and varied reactions to changing conditions feasible.
Legislators and government officials might draw some useful lessons from these evolutionary insights. If, as I personally think, an organism’s genome is analogous to a society’s code of laws, and each gene-based adaptation represents an individual law or regulation, then the most effective written statute would apply to many situations and retain flexibility. Rigidly deterministic traits tailored to specific challenges may work well for a species in the short run, but they become ineffective or even harmful as the target challenge is eclipsed by a new danger.
Evolutionary adaptations are most enduring and most likely to be conserved with modification when they confer flexible and rapid yet regulated responses. This principle should apply to the legal code as well. Laws, it seems to me, should be relatively few in number, be written broadly to encompass many situations, and be enforced (or, in evolutionary terms, expressed) flexibly.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Well-adapted organisms are often thought of as independent, self-sustaining individuals, but their features are fashioned in an ecosystem, a community of species that provides food and support enemies. In the lineage of Wynne-Edwards, some authors even go so far as to say that selection does not occur solely at the individual level but also at the group level. In other words, men and animals do not exclusively pursue their genetic interests: very often, it is the social unit, not the “selfish gene”, whose survival and propagation comes first. Do you hold group section theory for a judicious evolutionary approach?
Geerat J. Vermeij: I am persuaded that, if a group is coherent across generations, group selection can occur.
This is surely important in humans; indeed, I think the role of group selection may be central to the cultural evolution of religion and many other uniquely human characteristics that are expressed at the group level. For a species in which remote trust is essential for trade, group traits that enhance cohesion are an essential ingredient to group (and therefore ultimately individual) success.
There are probably other animals in which group selection also plays a role, but as many theoreticians have pointed out, the conditions under which group selection can become important are stringent.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Competition is a ubiquitous phenomenon, both in biology and in economics. In his 1949 treatise on economics, Ludwig von Mises argued that economic competition among humans was nonetheless a case of its own in the order of nature: a cooperative, emulative and peaceful organization of human activities under the division of labor, which has nothing to do with the coercive and cruel rivalry between animals.
“What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies.
The very condition from which the irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition arise—viz., the fact that all people by and large strive after the same things—is transformed into a factor making for harmony of interests. Because many people or even all people want bread, clothes, shoes, and cars, large-scale production of these goods becomes feasible and reduces the costs of production to such an extent that they are accessible at low prices (…)
In nature there prevail irreconcilable conflicts of interests. The means of subsistence are scarce. Proliferation tends to outrun subsistence. Only the fittest plants and animals survive. The antagonism between an animal starving to death and another that snatches the food away from it is implacable. [But] social cooperation under the division of labor removes such antagonisms. It substitutes partnership and mutuality for hostility. The members of society are united in a common venture.
The term competition as applied to the conditions of animal life signifies the rivalry between animals which manifests itself in their search for food. We may call this phenomenon biological competition (…) Catallactic competition is emulation between people who want to surpass one another. It is not a fight, although it is usual to apply to it in a metaphorical sense the terminology of war and internecine conflict, of attack and defense, of strategy and tactics. Those who fail are not annihilated; they are removed to a place in the social system that is more modest, but more adequate to their achievements than that which they had planned to attain (…)
To assign to everybody his proper place in society is the task of the consumers. Their buying and abstention from buying is instrumental in determining each individual’s social position (…) Entrance into a definite branch of industry is virtually free to newcomers only as far as the consumers approve of this branch’s expansion or as far as the newcomers succeed in supplanting those already occupied in it by filling better or more cheaply the demands of the consumers. Additional investment is reasonable only to the extent that it fills the most urgent among the not yet satisfied needs of the consumers.”
How would you assess this conceptual distinction between biological competition and “catallactic” rivalry?
Geerat J. Vermeij: It seems to me that there are multiple misconceptions about competition and cooperation. First of all, there is extensive rivalry in human societies, at the group as well as the individual level, despite a division of labor.
Moreover, this “catallactic” human division of labor parallels the situation in nature, where competition and cooperation go hand in hand; indeed, cooperation is an excellent method for increasing competitive performance. Cooperation can never eliminate competition despite utopian views to the contrary. Division of labor is a mechanism for diminishing competition at one level, but competition remains among those doing the same things.
A basic theme in both “natural” and human cultural evolution is the elimination or reduction of trade-offs, functional incompatibilities, particularly in the most powerful entities; but among subordinate entities, the trade-offs remain, and it is these that largely account for the division of labor that exists in all economic systems.
Every economic activity and every investment comes with costs. With a fixed budget, greater expenditure on one item means cutting back on another. This is the principle of the trade-off, a manifestation of competition that leads to functional compromise, imperfection, specialization, and the division of labor. The pluses and minuses— benefits and costs, advantages and disadvantages, rewards and risks— vary from place to place as well as over time, and they are influenced by the actions of living things. Active foraging for food, for example, benefits an animal if the work allows it to eat, but the presence of enemies may make foraging so risky that the animal is better off resting where it won’t be found or recognized.
Some trade-offs are built into the fundamental machinery of metabolism. The enzyme Rubisco (ribulose-l, 5-biphosphate carboxylase-oxidase) is centrally involved both in oxygen-producing photosynthesis and in light-assisted respiration, the reverse process in which oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide is liberated. The active site of the enzyme binds either oxygen or carbon dioxide, which are thus in competition for that site. The role of the enzyme in both photosynthesis and light-assisted respiration in plants thus sets rather strict limits on the efficiency with which carbon is fixed and released. Improvement in either function would probably benefit plants, but Rubisco’s conservative structure evidently precludes this possibility.
The idea that imperfection is the expected state of adaptation flies in the face of common intuition and a long intellectual tradition. In the pre-Darwinian worldview, the productions of nature were thought of as God’s perfect designs. Even for many post-Darwinians, the expectation that organisms are optimally adapted has held a prominent place. Proponents of this view defend it by arguing that optimality provides specific, testable predictions about function, and that natural selection molds the best possible adaptations given initial conditions, trade-offs, and circumstances. Economists, too, have constructed an elaborate theory of prices and markets based on optimal, well-informed behavior by producers and consumers. The weakness in this approach is its unfalsifiability. If an organism falls short of perfection, we can always appeal to some unknown circumstances or limitations that we had not considered in the original hypothesis.
An evolutionarily more tenable position is that organisms are sufficient, that they work well enough to survive and reproduce. Good design in this sense does not have to mean optimal design. The standard of allowable imperfection varies according to competition and environmental uncertainty. Under weak competition, economic success demands nothing more than the equivalent of a passing grade, a low standard of performance. But when competition is intense and the stakes are high, as measured by absolute costs and benefits, the bar of acceptable performance is set very high, and success demands a close approximation to the ideal. Adaptation is as good as it has to be; it need not be the best that could be designed. Adaptation depends on context.
A partial solution to, and cause of, the problems of trade-offs and imperfection is to specialize, to divide tasks among entities or parts, each devoted to just one function. Being good at chasing a fast prey animal for long distances is incompatible with protective armor. Adaptations effective for life on land are often at odds with those enabling an aquatic existence. In very many cases, a single organism could do all of these things, but it would do none of them well. As Robert MacArthur emphasized in his writings, the jack-of-all-trades is master of none. The generalist method is adequate if stakes are low, but increasing specialization is often mandated when the stakes— the standards of performance in competition— are high.
Environmental variation that has little effect on performance in a world of weak competition becomes important to performance as competition intensifies. Where the total budget of energy and material available to an individual is limited, trade-offs favor specialization among parts that are loosely integrated into the whole. Specialization of this kind occurs among the cells or tissues of the body, different life stages of an individual’s life cycle, species within ecosystems, and occupations in human society. Higher stakes thus impose new trade-offs, new specializations, and a finer division of the environment into domains that can be exploited profitably.
Specialization and the division of labor are manifestations of diversity, or variety. The atoms and molecules that form the basis of our physical universe and of the biosphere can combine and be separated into an effectively infinite number of different structures. In the biosphere, these different structures typically have different functions. Ecologists are accustomed to think about diversity in terms of species, units composed of genetically compatible individuals that typically do not exchange genes with members of other species. Diversity within organisms is expressed in cell types, tissues, and organs; and within cells, diversity is seen among organelles and among macromolecules. Occupations— ways of making a living— reveal diversity in human societies, as do products, languages, cultural practices, institutions, and machines.
The details of how diversity arises and where it is expressed vary, but as I mentioned earlier, diversity is an inescapable and universal attribute of economic systems, an attribute that on average builds on itself as economies develop.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The law of markets, generally attributed to Jean-Baptiste Say, has been expressed, and refuted, in many interesting technical forms. But its essential point is that products buy products through the mediating role of money.
On macroeconomic level, this amounts to saying that every increase of production creates, or rather constitutes, its own demand, so long as the array of goods and services produced coincides with the array of goods and services demanded. By reason of the global interdependence of industries under the division of labor, the inability of an initial group of producers to sell their merchandises (at cost-covering prices) may however lead to a fall in demand for the products of other producers, and so on through the entire economy. In other words, miscalculation on the part of producers may extend to all branches of industry, generating a deficient aggregate demand.
At first sight, the law of markets, that consumption depends on production, is a truism. It is true, so to speak, in ecosystems, where surplus production of consuming animals permits higher-level consumers to make a living as top predators; but it is even more true in human societies, where it is sales proceeds from production that enable one to buy from others. Recessions occur when miscalculation manifests itself, that is, when the proportions in which goods have been produced do not match with the quantities that those who have incomes or borrowed funds really wish to buy. The result is a glutting of markets, a reduction in employment and a period of recession until a subsequent revival commences.
In this regard, one can frame the discussion about disturbance in human economies by asking the question to know how miscalculation may happen in a large scale, and more precisely, how a partial glut may lead to a lagging of total demand behind total supply via the mutual interdependence of all producers. In a more comprehensive manner, the question to be answered can be expressed as follows: how interference with the machinery of production may lead to economic collapse within an ecosystem or within a society, and more precisely, how feedback among economic players may dramatically affect how disruptions ripple through the whole system.
According to you, which elements of reflection inspired by “the economic history of nature” deserve to be stressed in this context?
Geerat J. Vermeij: In the history of life, as I see it, mass disruptions as indicated by mass extinctions begin as disruptions in productivity by photosynthesizing organisms. This reduction is caused by volcanism, cometary collisions, and the like. These disruptions ripple to all parts of the system, because now demand has exceeded supply.
The opposite could also occur, if, for example, top consumers were preferentially eliminated. This is what is happening to ecosystems under human hegemony; but I think the effects, though obvious, are not as destabilizing as when the supply side is disrupted. Elimination of top consumers may result in the equivalent of an economic recession, but by itself does not spin out of control to cause economic collapse.
Interference with the machinery of production, on the other hand, does reverberate throughout the ecosystem, with disastrous consequences not only for primary producers but for the many organisms that depend on these producers directly for food and living space. All the mass extinctions of the geological past, and many of the minor ones, began with a productivity collapse. Recovery from such crises is slower for consumers than for opportunistic producers, so that post-crisis ecosystems remain in a recessionary state of low demand for extended intervals of time.
Nonetheless, the high-powered weeds that do best in the early recovery phases prepare ecosystems for the successful establishment of more permanent, powerful competitors, and are in a good evolutionary position themselves to give rise to the new dominants. In the end, disturbance is at worst a temporary setback to economic systems, even if that setback is accompanied by prolonged perturbations in supply and demand. At best, it stimulates economies in directions the economies would have taken even in the absence of disruption.
From my quick survey of the great and small extinction events of the geological past, I take away three lessons. First, the extinctions are all associated with a drop in primary productivity, which must come about through interference with the supply of energy and raw materials, and which destabilizes ecosystems from the bottom. Organisms directly dependent on living resources are particularly at risk during the production crises.
Second, any of several circumstances and triggers, acting alone or in concert, potentially interfere with photosynthesis and diminish the supplies of necessities for primary producers. Although we remain in the dark about the details, a reasonable hypothesis is that the greatest crises are precipitated by the impact of large celestial objects on Earth’s surface.
Third, whether and how a given trigger causes a collapse in production depends not only on the magnitude and extent of the disturbance and on the adapted state of the producers, but also on the particular background context of climate and geography and on the extent to which positive feedbacks amplify the initial trigger. A celestial impact occurring at a time when ecosystems have already been stressed by some other disturbance, such as falling sea level, may be more devastating than an impact under more economically favorable circumstances.
No event in human history even approaches in magnitude the crises that marked the major and minor extinctions of the geological past, but the archaeological and written record of human affairs clearly documents the destructive consequences of climate-controlled and human-caused decreases in the supply of food and other sources of energy on society.
We ultimately depend on photosynthesis for food, and are therefore like other animals in being vulnerable to the same kinds of climate-related disruptions to primary production. For example, a 200-year drought between 5,200 and 5,000 years ago may have brought about the collapse of late Uruk society in Mesopotamia after some 800 years of vigorous agriculture and urbanization. About 4,200 years ago, a major episode of cooling and drought, associated with a 30 percent drop in rainfall, caused regional abandonment of civilizations from the Indus Valley to Egypt and Crete. Severe flooding, probably associated with an intense El Nino, conspired with severe drought during a thirty-year interval of the late sixth century A.D., leading to famine and to the destruction of the capital city of Peru’s Moche civilization. Prolonged and severe drought also accounts for the demise of the classic Maya civilization in the ninth century, the collapse of agriculture in the Tiwanaku civilization of Peru in the central Andes, and the collapse of the Anasazi civilization of the southwestern United States at the end of the thirteenth century. In Europe, famine and the spread of the plague in the early and middle fourteenth century coincided with the beginning of the Little Ice Age, a period of cool summers and cold winters following a 500-year interval of warm climate and human population expansion. Human-caused deforestation and soil erosion doubtless exacerbated the effects of drought in all these cases.
With an increase in long-distance trade, greatly helped by cheaper and faster transport of a greater quantity of commodities, the effects of regional climatic variation on agricultural output have been substantially blunted. As long as climate-related or weather-induced crop failures remain local or regional, modern civilization’s relative immunity to this kind of bottom-up disruption should continue. But we run great risks by becoming too dependent on a very small number of highly productive regions, many of which are being degraded by soil erosion, unsustainable water use, increasing salt content of soil, and urbanization, to say nothing of the ever-increasing human population. The lesson that the extinctions of the past teach above all is that tampering with highly productive ecosystems through pollution, overexploitation, fragmentation, or replacement with built-up areas invites disaster.
Unlike other animals, humans have come to depend on other sources of energy— fossil and nuclear fuels, and perhaps in the future hydrogen— for much of our economic activity. A new type of “primary production”— extracting, converting, and distributing the new sources of energy and building and maintaining the industry that accomplishes these tasks— has thus been added to the traditional methods of gathering and growing food. Leaving aside the point that fossil fuels will eventually have to be replaced by other sources of energy, the supply of fuels from living as well as nonliving sources is substantially under human control, meaning that economic disruption is increasingly likely to be human caused. War, sabotage, trade embargoes, and political indifference and oppression today loom large as causes of famine, destruction, cutoffs in the fuel supply, and suppression of demand.
In human history as well as in the history of life as a whole, we can discern a general shift from external, bottom-up disruptions to crises created within economies themselves. Extinctions driven by climates, volcanic eruptions, and above all by celestial impacts will surely occur again, but relentless and cumulative selection has perhaps increasingly protected survivors from previous catastrophes from subsequent bottom-up disruptions. In a parallel way, climate-related famines have been largely absent in the last 150 years of human history. By contrast, extinctions due to other, mostly powerful, species may have become increasingly common through geological time. In the same way, economic disruptions stemming from human activities may have become more frequent and more destructive. The cause for this shift is the same in the human and nonhuman realm: intense competition, fed by an increasingly prolific and reliable supply system, has produced more powerful agents and larger, more productive economies, which have correspondingly acquired greater abilities to disrupt and destroy as well as to spread wealth.
Before leaving the subject of disturbance, I want to say that a major problem in human society, more so than in nature, is that we as a species have created a monopoly. This has made it difficult to correct or compensate for great errors. We no longer have an effective way of dealing with the many tragedies of the commons that our economic activity has brought to bear on the rest of nature.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You suggest holding the emergence of monotheistic religions for a cultural adaptation to an economy that operated close to the carrying capacity given the level of technology of the time.
By assigning a dominant role to a supernatural being whose actions are largely beyond the control of mortal humans, these beliefs reinforced the perception that little can be done to improve the lot of people. But the success of some religions, notably Christianity and Islam, in motivating societies to engage in expansion and conquest implies that monotheisms at certain times of their history may also turn out to be social adaptations to growth.
How do you sum up the characteristics that ideologies leading to growth and expansion have in comparison to ideologies that retain their function of stabilizing society? By the way, do ideologies based on dogma and myth work better in human society than does a scientific system based on observation and alterable theory?
Geerat J. Vermeij: It does seem that the most successful religions – monotheistic ones – have led to major expansions in the past, because they unite people that otherwise would not have a common interest. Many other interest groups operate on smaller scales, as I suspect all ancient religions (including Islam and Christianity when they first originated) did.
The evidence suggests that religions based on supernatural entities and on myths work better than those based on empirically verifiable truths, but this may not always be the case in the future. To me, an ideal system would be a system of ethics and morals that is undergirded by a combination of laws and sanctions not based on mythology but on principles of how we all wish to be treated by others.
Now that science is becoming ever more powerful in its explanatory power, it is surely not beyond human capacity to create such a system of ethical and moral norms.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thanks for your time and your insights. Would you like to add anything else?
Geerat J. Vermeij: You’re welcome. I was hardly the first to follow the path from a childhood love of nature to the more disciplined endeavor of evolutionary science. Many of the great evolutionists, from Charles Darwin to Harvard biologist and ant specialist Edward O. Wilson, built their illustrious discoveries on a foundation of observing and collecting the productions of nature. But for them, observation largely meant seeing.
My sensory world, by contrast, was one of touch, sound, odor, and taste. What little vision I had at birth disappeared by design during the last of many operations on my glaucoma-affected eyes at the academic hospital in Utrecht, three months shy of my fourth birthday. Blindness came early enough that the parts of my brain where visual signals are integrated into images could be retooled to interpret the signals from my remaining senses. Except for vivid memories of colors, all my encounters with nature and my entire education proceeded in the absence of light perception.
My scientific outlook has been largely shaped by exposure to a great variety of environments—forests, reefs, mudflats, swamps, deserts, tundra, wave-swept rocky seashores, high mountains, fossil sites, remote islands, and natural-history museums—and to a vast literature that led me on long intellectual excursions into history, economics, and every discipline in science.
Always I am driven by insatiable curiosity, by the overwhelming desire to make sense of the astounding diversity that evolution has wrought and that I find irresistible.
That conversation was initially published in the June 2016 issue of Man and the Economy, founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase