The Danger of Darwinian Overdose: Why Evolutionary Innovation Requires Surplus

In this age of eternal economic recovery, I seem to hear a lot about how important the idea of austerity is. We must be reserved, we must make hard decisions, and we must be selective. Somehow if we cut deep enough, we will come through with an efficient machine, ready to power us into the next golden age of innovation and economic plenty.

This belief that only through maximizing selective economic pressure can we maximize economic growth reaches its harshest heights when it filters down to the level of individual workers. Plenty of people seem to genuinely believe that if we just let the people starve a bit more, if we take away what few social benefits they have, then they’ll really have the hunger needed to drive them to find a job and push the economy onwards and upwards.

The view that maximizing selective pressure makes for the best economic evolution is often justified through comparisons to the law of natural evolution. But, this belief that the strongest organisms evolve when competition is at its most cut-throat stems from an incomplete view of the nature of evolution.

Evolution is not some cold algorithm seeking to maximize efficiency of resource utilization through mutation and survival of the fittest. Biological adaptation is a flourishing of possibility that requires not only resource-limited selection but also needs ecological surplus. Speciation is maximized in a supportive an ecosystem that provides both plentiful resources and competition. Species must have the chance to mutate and create new forms. Species that have no established niche in which to prosper have no chance of adapting to new environments through evolutionary innovation.

Natural selection is the product of both competition and surplus! It is in thriving, healthy, ecosystems, (think of the rain forests of the world) where nature best explores the boundaries of possibility. Indeed, the great explosions of biological differentiation always come as great surpluses of new resources are discovered and capitalized on by innovative species.This is what occurred in the rapid phases of colonization of the land by insects, then by dinosaurs, and eventually mammals.

Nature can even be downright wasteful at times. Sexual display characteristics like antlers or the peacock tail are perfect examples of the kind of beautiful adaptations that prove nature is not some utilitarian algorithm seeking to maximize efficiency. We humans also have ecological surplus to thank for some of our best traits. Female human breasts are actually the direct equivalent of the peacock’s tail, providing no real utilitarian benefit yet remaining on display throughout the woman’s life, unlike primates where breasts enlarge to produce milk only when needed.. The results are energetically wasteful yet undeniably alluring and beautiful.

Humans also have another energetically costly lump of fat that is thought to have evolved as a consequence of ecological surplus. New theories suggest that humans were able to evolve such ridiculously large brains (per body size) only after we discovered a readily available source of protein-rich food in the form of fish found in coastal regions. Fascinatingly, it has also been suggested that this period of semi-aquatic existence may have also lead to the loss of fur in our ancestors (see the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis).

The view that evolution is strictly about species living on the edge of survival and competing for a limited pool of resources is a dangerous oversimplification. The fact is that the evolution of all of the wonderful forms of life around us is as much a product of surplus as is it of selection.

Nature innovates best when it has space to do so; we should seek to apply the same thinking to economics.

I deeply believe that economic innovation lives by the same rules as natural selection. Yes, we must have selective pressure of the market to allow the best and brightest to flourish, but we must also need to create a supportive environment of surplus where people to experiment with new ideas, whether in the sphere of business, culture, education, philosophy, or any other discipline that has been so vital to our economic advancement.

The politics of neo-Darwinism say that we maximize innovation by maximizing the pressure on workers to innovate means to create value for the economy. But isn’t it already clear that this is not the case? How could we have innovation without having the time to educate ourselves or the capital to empower our business ideas? It is no wonder that innovations have always come predominantly from the middle and upper classes where they are afforded the economic breathing room to experiment with new ideas.

We need surplus in our lives in order to power the mutational process of economic innovation.

Now, I should be clear that I do not think it would be wise to turn our backs on the market altogether. Just as nature needs a balance of selective pressure and resource surplus in order to maximize evolutionary innovation, I believe that if we can find the better balance between selection and surplus, then we will be better able to power economic innovation.

In pursuit of this balance, I have come to believe that it is time that governments of the world take hold of the idea of a basic income to power the next great wave of invention that will push our economies forward. Basic income means basic freedom for all men, and it is this basic freedom to turn away from dead-end jobs and wasted lives that people need to power their innovation. Yes, jobs must continue to exist, but it is no longer economically efficient to force people into unsatisfying work simply to meet their basic needs.

Economic Darwinists have it backwards. Whereas they argue that a strong society can only come from a strong economy, I think that a strong and free society will necessarily lead to a strong economy. 

If we seek to first build a better society, then we will have a better economy.


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