The Evolution of a New Economy?
January 7, 2012

The new year 2012 is shaping up to be remarkably like 2011. Continued global warming, continued opposition to the teaching of evolution and global warming, continued economic uncertainty, and another year with a Congress that considers its sole function to be partisan strife.

But one of these years, enormous changes will have to come. As economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out decades ago, and as environmental entrepreneur Paul Gilding has pointed out in his 2010 book, The Great Disruption, growth cannot continue forever in a finite world. Gilding says that our current economic system will collapse, since it depends totally on economic growth. It will have to be replaced by an equilibrium economy. Gilding points out that this inevitable transition will not occur smoothly or gradually. At some point, a critical mass of people will realize that, in a finite world in which global warming will disrupt our lives, we have to change. Many of us realize this already; and we are a rapidly growing minority.

The change will be disruptive, since entire industries (such as coal and oil) have refused to admit that we are about to collide with natural ecological limits; they will fight to keep people not just using but wasting natural resources. Big corporations will continue to demand government bailouts for their own business mistakes. They preach capitalism but demand socialism. The resulting chaos, in a world with natural disasters and scarce food, will not be pretty. One of these years—it might be 2012—will make 2011 seem like a very uneventful year.

Gilding says that we will emerge from the chaos with a new and sustainable economic system. The old economy consists of many patterns of thought, which include: We have to keep growing to avoid collapse; we have to acquire ever more stuff in order to be happy; since the economy will always grow, we can put ourselves deeply into debt; ecological issues are something that we can take care of someday when we are all rich. These are the old, destructive thoughts that have brought our economy to the brink of disaster. But there are other economic patterns of thought: Our economy can be sustainable; happiness does not require lots of stuff; we can live within our means; we need to fit our economy into ecological limits now. There are millions of people (not enough millions) who believe this second set of ideas; and there are hundreds of companies that abide by them. That is, in the world of economic ideas, there is diversity.

And then along comes catastrophic natural selection: an economic collapse. If we were all hypnotized by consumerism, then this collapse would mean extinction. However, natural selection will in this case favor the companies and individuals that are ready to pursue sustainability memes. Yes, there will be an enormous collapse; but many individuals and corporations are at least partly ready for it. There are, for example, hundreds of alternative energy companies ready to fill the void that will be left by the downfall of the petroleum industry.

This sounds like good news. I wish I could believe it, but I believe that political conservatives will prevent us from making enough changes to survive the coming collapse; they will suppress the solutions. The CEOs of financial corporations, for example, want to keep us in debt rather than to let us live without owing them money. But they cannot wipe them out. At some point, a sustainable world may emerge.

In Memory of Lynn Margulis
January 30, 2012

One of the greatest evolutionary scientists, Lynn Margulis, died last November 22. In this essay I would like to reflect on her contributions to our understanding of the world. Not just of a narrow aspect of science, but the whole world.

Lynn was a child prodigy who began her university studies at age 14. In graduate school, she studied genetics, and married her fellow graduate student, Carl Sagan (who was as creative and large a thinker as she). She was not content to just learn what others said about genetics. She wanted to understand why some traits were inherited only through the mother’s side. These traits appeared to be passed on not through the chromosomes in the nucleus but through the mitochondria, which are tiny energy factories inside of most cells. Some plant traits appeared to be passed on through chloroplasts, the tiny green photosynthesis factories in many plant cells. This meant that mitochondria and chloroplasts had, and used, their own DNA. She wondered why they had that DNA. When she read about the work of some Russian scientists in the early twentieth century, she had her answer. Mitochondria and chloroplasts started off as bacteria, which moved into and took up residence inside of larger cells that already had nuclei. They did not consume the larger cell, nor did it consume them. Instead they formed a permanent partnership, which has been going on for billions of years. Mitochondria and chloroplasts began, she said, by symbiosis—cells living together. The result was the genesis of a new, complex kind of cell. She called this process symbiogenesis.

When Lynn Sagan (later Margulis) wrote her paper, it was rejected fifteen times. She was persistent. Finally it was published. At first her ideas were scorned. But in less than a decade, most biologists were convinced that she was right. When I went to hear her speak, while I was a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara (it was the first scientific seminar I ever attended), she was well received, even though the professor who introduced her made some off-color jokes. At the time, I was a creationist, and I thought that there were only two alternatives to the origin of a complex cell: either gradual evolution, or sudden creation. Lynn Margulis presented a third alternative. Her view was entirely evolutionary, of course; but the host cell and the bacteria had evolved, separately and gradually, then suddenly merged together.

Today Margulis’s view of the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts is a textbook standard. Scientists are working on an even more amazing example of symbiogenesis: many believe that the nucleus itself is the evolutionary descendant of a bacterium that moved into a larger cell that did not yet have a nucleus. I suspect that this idea would have been too wild even for Lynn in the early days.

In her final years, Lynn was looking for evidence that cilia and “flagella” of complex cells (such as paramecia) were the evolutionary descendants of spirochete bacteria. She had some good circumstantial evidence, but never did find proof.

She was also the principal biological champion of the “Gaia” view of the Earth, a view first proposed by atmospheric scientists James Lovelock. All of the organisms of the Earth form a single network of life. The Earth is therefore not just the home of life, but is alive. Not every component of the Earth is alive, of course; but neither is every component of a cell. A cell has living components, such as mitochondria, and nonliving components, such as water. But nobody would say that a cell is not alive. By the same reasoning, the Earth is alive.

Lynn was pugnacious. She was not afraid of a good scientific debate. And she was not afraid to be wrong. Clearly she was wrong in her assertion that HIV is not an infectious virus. But if she had never taken the risk of being wrong, would she ever have had the insights that changed modern biology?

I had a chance to talk with Lynn Margulis in 2004, as I was preparing my Encyclopedia of Evolution. She was 66 years old at the time, and could have retired comfortably and with renown. But she was still fighting for recognition of yet more of her insights. I mispronounced her name, and she corrected me: the emphasis is on the first syllable, Margulis. She said I would only be allowed to make that mistake once. I didn’t make it again. She enjoyed what I had written in my encyclopedia but was not afraid to point out what she considered errors. When I dedicated Life of Earth to her last year, she left me a phone message saying that the dedication brought tears of happiness to her eyes. She bought copies and left them for students to read at the University of Massachusetts, where she worked. I am glad to have brought a little joy and appreciation into the life of this great scientist.

We can carry on Lynn’s legacy if we continue to think big about the world. When Lynn started, most scientists were trying to decompose the big picture down into component parts. But now, many scientists consider that the interactions of those components are the most important thing. An entire research institute, the Santa Fe Institute, is devoted to understanding complex interactions and emergent properties. Geneticists now know that humans and mice have about the same number of genes, and most of them are the same genes; the big difference between a mouse and a human is not the genes but the interactions among the genes. I like to think that Lynn contributed greatly to this important change in the scientific view of the world.

Equilibrium Economy?
February 18, 2012

It seems that all of the economies in the world depend utterly upon continual growth. Whenever the pace of American economic growth is slow, reporters say, "The economy grew at an anemic pace last month..."

But it is obvious that nothing can keep on growing forever in a limited world. As economist Kenneth Boulding is reported to have said, "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." I have cited this quotation before. As the world population nears seven billion, and each person uses more energy and raw materials than ever before, we are coming close to the maximum possible use of resources that the world can sustain. In fact, we may have already surpassed it. The only kind of economy that can persist in the future is an equilibrium economy, which stays the same size from one year to the next. There probably is no such economy anywhere in the world. Even Bhutan, which uses "gross national happiness" as a yardstick of success, appears to be growing.

But how is it possible to have an equilibrium economy in a world in which the population still grows by 80 million people per year? Clearly, at some point, we need to have an equilibrium population as well. We also need to have a more equitable distribution of wealth among people within and between nations. The wealth of a millionaire could support twenty people like me, and I am rich by world standards. Free-market ideologues hate this thought, but it is a requirement for the survival of the human economy, whether they like it or not. To pretend that "unlimited growth forever, especially for rich people" is reality is like a Christian Scientist pretending that disease exists only in the imagination.

Meanwhile, there is something we can do. We can "work smarter, not harder." This sounds like a cliché that Dilbert's pointy-haired boss made up. (In fact, he did.) But it is true. In particular, we can do more with less if we use our energy and raw materials more efficiently, and find new sources. We can increase the amount of productivity while decreasing our carbon emissions if we increase our "carbon intensity," that is, the amount of economic output per ton of carbon dioxide. The Bush Administration wanted to increase carbon intensity rather than decreasing carbon emissions; however, we need to do both. President Obama's plan to invest in "green energy" can help us make the transition to the equilibrium economy of the future, one that keeps people employed by running on sunlight. Obama's opponents call for a path that leads us to short-term growth, followed by a precipitous collapse. In fact, it is possible that Obama's opponents want a collapse to occur, so that they can, amidst America's wreckage, accuse Obama of causing it. They want to be dead right.

We need an equilibrium economy, not a growth economy. We know how to do it, and to keep people employed while doing it.

Exuberant Chaos
March 3, 2012

You might be surprised to discover that my favorite book is Andrew Nelson's Kanji Dictionary. The edges of its pages are stained from finger oil that has accumulated since 1974. Kanji are the complex characters in the written Japanese language. Over a thousand years ago, they were introduced into Japan from the Chinese writing system. Nelson's dictionary lists 5,446 of them.

Why would this dictionary be my favorite book? It only recently occurred to me to ask this question. The kanji characters are an exuberant chaos of forms. Some of them are simple and very pictorial: the character for "3" is three horizontal lines, while the character for "river" is three vertical lines (like the currents of a river viewed from overhead). But the more complex characters either do not resemble the objects they represent, or are composites of simpler characters. The design of these characters, as they were first invented thousands of years ago in China and then modified in Japan, is an emotional design, rather than a logical one. As I said, it appears to be an exuberant chaos.

But the kanji dictionary forces order upon this chaos. Yes, you can actually look up a character in a dictionary, not by looking separately at 5,446 pictures, but by breaking the characters apart into their components. The characters are organized by the number of brush strokes needed, first, to produce its principal component, and then to produce the entire character. To an experienced user of a kanji dictionary, as I once aspired to be back during my Japanophile period, a few page turns are all that are necessary to look up one character from the entire set of 5,446. There is a feeling of satisfaction and peace (called "wa" in Japanese) in imposing order upon chaos.

This is the same feeling that Karl Linne (Carolus Linnaeus) had in the eighteenth century when he devised a way of classifying the chaotic diversity of organisms. In the modern form of the Linnaean classification system, different species are grouped into a genus, different genera into a family, different families into an order, different orders into a class, different classes into a phylum or division, different phyla into a kingdom, on the basis of the similarity of the organisms to one another. For example, dogs and wolves are two species in the dog genus Canis; the dog genus Canis and the fox genus Vulpes are members of the dog family Canidae.

It turns out, however, that these seemingly artificial systems have a naturalistic origin. The kanji classification system, and the biological classification system, each have an evolutionary basis. The kanji really did begin as simple pictures, but they evolved into ever more complex forms, often by fusing together with one another. The kanji character for "language," for example, is an evolutionary fusion of the characters for "word," "mouth," and "five" (which, like the word for language, is pronounced "go"). The kanji classification system picks the characters apart largely along the lineages by which they evolved.

It was Darwin who pointed out that the Linnaean system revealed an evolutionary order. Dogs and wolves are so similar because, only a few thousand years ago, they had the same ancestor. Dogs and foxes had a common ancestor, but further back in the past. All carnivores had a common ancestor, perhaps 50 million years ago. All mammals had a common ancestor, perhaps 175 million years ago. All vertebrates had a common ancestor, hundreds of millions of years ago. Linnaeus knew nothing about evolution, but his system ended up imitating evolution. The fact that biologists invented an evolutionary classification system without meaning to was, to Darwin, an important proof that evolution had really occurred.

It is deeply gratifying to bring order out of chaos. But it is even more gratifying to recognize that the order you have imposed reveals an underlying history to what you had considered chaos.

Of course, you will not be surprised to hear that another childhood fantasy of mine was to see the gigantic filing cabinet which I imagined was at the Smithsonian Institution which had a sheet of paper for each species on the planet. Each species in the chaos of nature had its own place in this filing cabinet. Of course, there is no such filing cabinet (I think). Scientists, however, are trying to create a website (the Encyclopedia of Life) in which each species has a web page-and they just might do it.

Altruism: The Third Alternative for Ecology and Evolution
March 11, 2012

I recently read a book entitled The Penguin and the Leviathan, by Yochai Benkler, a leading scholar in business research. I have read many books about altruism, many of them by scientists such as Frans deWaal (The Age of Empathy), Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good), and Martin Nowak (Super Cooperators). These books repeatedly make the point that individuals within animal species, individual humans, and businesses can profit from being nice and generous to others. Altruism, rather than violent competition, is the most important component of "the law of the jungle." Just ask any of the chimps that deWaal has studied. The way to the top is primarily through cooperation, not violent competition. Even apes understand this. Benkler's book is published by Crown Business, a division of a major New York publisher. Its intended audience is not science buffs but business leaders. In the title, the Penguin is Tux, the icon of Linux, whose business model is cooperation rather than top-down command, and the Leviathan is the cynical view of life presented centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes.

Benkler, though not a scientist, has done a very good job of summarizing the evolutionary science of altruism. But the thing that opened my eyes the most was that Benkler presented altruism as a third alternative for how a society could operate. The other two ways are state control and free market. We usually think that these are our only two choices. But, as Benkler explains, this is not true.

Both state control (as exemplified by dictators on the political right or the political left) and free market economics operate from the assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish. State control attempts to force people to not be selfish. The free market tries to capitalize upon those utterly selfish economic machines known as humans. But Benkler points out that altruism is a fundamental instinct of the human mind. As Michael Shermer said, it feels good to be good; humans enjoy being altruistic. Altruism motivates much of what we do.

Our only hope, from Benkler's viewpoint, is to build our society and economic system in a way that facilitates altruism. Governments should not try to solve all social and economic problems by law and by creating big agencies; governments should be (in my words) conduits of the altruism that already exists in people's minds. Governments should be altruism enablers. Similarly businesses should embrace altruism, appealing to their customers' instincts to want to create a better world for everybody. Customers are selfish, but also altruistic. Customers are increasingly offended by corporations that display conspicuous selfishness; that assume the customers are merely selfish; or that use little greenwashing gimmicks to make themselves look environmentally friendly or socially altruistic. We customers are not stupid, nor are we totally selfish. We are (some of us more than others) partly altruistic and we expect our governments and businesses to also be altruistic.

Benkler makes the point that right now, when dictatorships are falling and the free market has proven ineffective enough that it has shaken the very faith of Alan Greenspan himself, is the time when altruism has a chance to influence the very structure of the economy and government. Governments and business CEOs have been good only at spending money, with disastrous consequences that nobody can ignore any longer.

Altruism, perhaps the greatest gift of evolution, is also the only way to solve our environmental problems. Neither of the other alternatives, government fiat or the profit motive by itself, have significantly deflected our worldwide momentum toward ecological disaster.

Appealing to the Basest Instincts
March 23, 2012

What is human nature? This is one of the most basic evolutionary questions. The liberal idea of previous decades, that the human mind is a blank slate upon which human nature is written by childhood experiences, has been largely discarded even by liberals. It is clear to about half of the people in America that human nature is the product of evolution. The other half of the people think it is the product of a joint venture between God and Satan: God created the good part, and for some inexplicable reason allowed Satan to create the bad part. And that bad part will get us sent to hell unless we assent to certain doctrinal beliefs.

What kind of human nature has evolution left us with? It is a complex mixture. A lot of human nature is altruistic-we have a deep emotional urge to help others, even sacrificially. And a lot of human nature is hateful-a desire to defeat, even to kill, those whom we view as a threat. The mixture is not so hard to understand. We feel altruism toward members of our group, and to hate members outside of our group. Although human nature has not changed during history, we have learned to gradually move the dividing line outward, so as to include and love more and more people in our group. The Christian ideal is to include all of humankind in the group that we love; and some parts of the Bible imply that we should love all of the living world.

But however much we have extended our boundaries of altruism, hatred remains a basic, and base, instinct. It is always going to be stronger than altruism. Here is why. Hatred is a quick and pervasive way of arousing the human body to respond to deadly conflict. If you perceive a danger, rage will allow you to respond to it quickly; if you wait and think, you might be dead. The consequences of attacking something or someone that or who turns out to not be a threat (Type II error, in statistical terminology) are far less than the consequences of failing to respond to a real threat (Type I error). This is why, throughout the animal kingdom, rage circumvents conscious thought, while altruism incorporates it. It is quite normal, though horrible, for people to respond to hatred more than to love.

Any public figure who appeals to the base instinct of hatred is going to get more unquestioning support than someone who appeals to love and reason. The altruist may get more reasoned support, but cannot win the battle for unquestioning support. And today in America, it is the conservatives who appeal to the base instinct of hatred. Probably the best example is Rush Limbaugh, who became infamous recently for his statements about a female college student (Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke). He called her a slut, and said, first, that she had so much sex that it was surprising that she could walk, and second, that Americans should have access to videos of her sexual encounters so that we could see what we were getting for our money. These statements were so outrageous that advertisers began pulling their support from Limbaugh's radio show; and Limbaugh later issued a perfunctory apology, which was clearly not repentance.

But what response did the Republican presidential candidates have? As of this writing, Mitt Romney has avoided any criticism of Rush Limbaugh. And Rick Santorum has even praised Rush Limbaugh. On a March 10 visit to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Limbaugh's hometown, Santorum said, "It's good to be in the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, which some people see as a trip to Mecca." He was careful to say "some people," but he was clearly including himself in that statement. He considers himself a Christian, yet (according to his own words) reveres Limbaugh with the same intensity that Muslims revere Mohammed.

Some politicians appeal to reason. This includes many Democrats, and a few Republicans (my favorite reasonable Republican is Mickey Edwards). Other politicians appeal to anger. This appears to include most Republicans, and some liberals. The angry liberals may be just as outrageous as Rush Limbaugh, but clearly their audience is much smaller than his. This is the generalization that emerges: Republicans use propaganda to appeal to the base instinct of hatred, while Democrats use reasoning to appeal to the higher instinct of altruism. This is strange, since most Republicans do not accept evolution, and believe that hatred was created by Satan.