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Comparative economics: evolution and the modern economy


Comparative economics—the description and underlying explanation of human and nonhuman variations on the relationship between life and its environment—seeks to discover how and to what extent the limitations that apply to some living systems can be overcome in others, including our own economy. It is founded on four phenomena, which collectively explain how life and its economic structures arise, how diversity of form and function come about, and how change occurs. These phenomena are self-organization, emergence (new properties and entities formed when parts combine), selection and adaptation, and feedback between living things and their surroundings. The systems of life vary in patterns of inheritance, the units among which selection takes place, resources, and size; these variables, in turn, affect patterns of history, adaptability, and innovation. Beneath the variation, all living systems are subject to local competition, cooperation, and evolution. Ten distinctive institutions and capacities have been thought to be unique to modern humans: cultural (non-genetic) inheritance of information and adaptations; cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals; markets in which enforceable contracts determine the quantities and prices of goods and services; utility, emergent goals and values informed by stable preferences; intentionality, deliberate action toward a predetermined goal; innovation by designing devices and institutions without historical precedents; symbolic thought; extrasomal extension, work performed beyond internal metabolism; and unsustainable exploitation of resources. These traits and capacities, which confer unprecedented power and reach, occur widely outside the human realm and have evolved independently in many organisms and ecosystems. They accelerate but do not fundamentally alter adaptation and innovation, and reduce but do not eliminate the constraints under which life in a finite world has persisted for three and a half billion years. Future civilization on Earth is therefore unlikely to forge an entirely new world order. Policies and predictions that are inconsistent with these universal realities are likely to fail. In particular: (1) local competition will remain necessary for successful adaptation and innovation; (2) an information-based economy will not replace an energy-based one, and energy use is unlikely to decline; and (3) redundancy of production in multiple sites must not be sacrificed through free trade and elimination of subsidies to achieve greater economic efficiency. Human survival requires that we work with nature, not against it.

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