Evolution as a substitute for the market?

E. O. Wilson once said of Marxism, "Nice theory, wrong species," by which he was indicating that communism was appropriate for ants, but not for humans.

But ants, like human actors, face optimization problems, so how do these get solved, in a complex society, without market prices? Of course, we do not expect ants to have to deal with changing tastes or technological innovations, which human actors must. But they still face environmental changes: a rainy or dry season, an anteater moving into the neighborhood, an invading foreign colony, and so on.

It occurs to me that for ants evolutionary pressures, over millions of years, have done what we expect markets to do for humans: adjusted the actions of the agents in the system to, if not optimize their efficacy, at least make it usually adequate to the challenges the agents face. (And remember, there are a lot more ants than humans on the planet, so they have done OK.)

This suggests an interesting question: to what extent can evolved cultural practices substitute for markets in producing sufficiently optimized behavior among humans? This is a great research topic for somebody out there, perhaps even for me one day.


  1. Great question. My impression is that evolution will function less well than markets in the short term, but better in the long term. We cannot wait for evolution solving us the problem of short supply of icecream during one abnormally hot week, but in the same way, hoping that the expectation of monetary gains in future generations will make us manage now in an efficient way atmosferic polution is just a dream. Natural selection will simply kill those societies or institutions, including markets, that are not able of offering a solution to certain problems.

  2. This is a weird question to me. Markets aren't an "optimizing tool" in my eyes. They're just something people do.


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