Life beyond economics

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, a pandemic, and a mental health crisis. These crises are highly interconnected.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human potential and limitations is not possible from within any single discipline. Not only is each discipline focused on specific aspects of human behaviour, but the different disciplines that examine human behaviour rest on mutually contradictory assumptions about human nature.

Understanding the co-creation of values

Economist Mariana Mazzucato points out that the activities that societies consider “productive” or “valuable” are subject to significant shifts over the decades and centuries. She observes that GDP is a hodge-podge that invites lobbying rather than reasoning about value and that the continuously evolving values within society need to become part of economic reasoning for the discipline of economics to remain relevant.

Mariana Mazzucato also explains why we shouldn’t try to go back to “normal” after the pandemic, but should instead rethink how governments can work together with businesses in partnership to solve big problems. She advocates making use of multi-dimensional metrics to track progress towards desirable goals. Trained in contemporary economics, she does however rely on the implicit assumption that markets are essential tools for coordinating human activities at scale.

It requires a transdisciplinary understanding of human collective behaviour to realise that fungibility of abstract metrics (the currencies that are used to coordinate activities within markets) is a major problem, especially as long as individuals have radically different levels of access to fungible currencies.

The mathematics that optimise markets are blind to externalities, and as long as market based incentives are used, people will look for ways to circumnavigate or co-opt any regulatory constraints to invent new competitive games, thereby shifting or obfuscating rather than reducing externalities.

Understanding humans

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. From a recent interview on the foundations of human cultural capability:

“When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally… So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively…”

A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

However, to understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations. Unfortunately on this topic Michael Tomasello’s understanding of autistic people is limited to literature references and “autism research” conducted under the pathology paradigm.

In this article I dive into the cultural evolutionary pressures that allowed autistic traits to proliferate and persist, and I rely on personal experiences to illustrate (a) why autists collaborate in ways that differ from “normal” expectations and (b) why we are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups.

The innate collaborative human tendency demonstrated by Michael Tomasello is also supported by anthropological research.

Samuel Bowles is an economist that has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions that are consistent with my own understanding of human cultural evolution and my observations on the new forms of collaboration and communication that have become possible in a digitally networked world.

Designing complex collaborations and flows

Our future depends on the adoption of new forms of creative collaboration. The kind of mathematics that can assist us in reasoning about dynamically evolving value systems and the coordination of non-trivial circular resource flows involve groups and graphs rather than numerical calculations.

The ecological lens is a modelling language for evolving ecosystems. It connects the human lens and the evolutionary lens via the activity of play and a critical perspective/motivation. The ecological lens catalyses diversity within the living world from an ecological perspective.

The evolutionary lens is a modelling language for collaborative niche construction. It consists of five categories that correspond to core elements of modern evolutionary theory (selection, variation, replication, understanding, and sustaining). The evolutionary lens allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into the living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

The human lens is modelling language for human social behaviour that allows us to understand living systems and to reason about such systems. It consists of thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time. The human lens provides a visual language and reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

Within the human lens the logistic lens provides five categories for describing value creating activities: grow (referring to the production of food and energy), make (referring to the engineering, and construction of systems), care (referring to the maintenance of production and system quality attributes), move (referring to the transportation of resources and flows of information and knowledge), and play (referring to creative experimentation and other social activities). The logistic lens can be used to model and understand feedback loops across levels of scale (from individuals, to teams, organisations, and economic ecosystems) and between agents (companies, regulatory bodies, local communities, research institutions, educational institutions, citizens, and governance institutions).

From wealth to good health

The categories of the logistic lens assist in the identification of suitable quantitative metrics for evaluating performance against a multi-dimensional value system articulated via a configuration of the semantic lens (the five categories of social, designed, symbolic, organic, and critical).

In the transition from a paradigm of economics based on competition to a to an ecology of care based on collaboration we will incrementally discover valuable metrics of health, well being, and waste flows, and we will become less and less concerned about abstract and potentially misleading metrics of wealth accumulation.

In an ecology of care the focus shifts from speculative investments for profit (where the people actively involved in a venture are viewed as tools towards a profitable “exit”) to investments in the health of ecosystems and people (where the people actively involved in a venture are co-investing in each other, resulting in a network of trusted relationships that connects the venture into an ecosystem of multi-dimensional resource flows between suppliers, customers, and partners).

Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

From an ecological perspective waste flows are destined to emerge as the most critical flows that need to be tracked and quantified meticulously. It will also make sense to quantify selected biological health metrics, but it may not make much sense to attempt to quantify all aspects of well being.

Reading list

Beyond the articles and talks referenced in the article, below is a list of related books and background articles:

Atkins P. W. B. et al., Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, Context Press, 2019

Babák D., Management of People: Weird and Feared, Da Vinci Institute, 2013

Bauwens M. et al., Peer to Peer : The Commons Manifesto, University of Westminster Press, 2019

Benyus J., Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1997

Bowles S. and Gintis H., A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2013

Bowles S., The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Costanza-Chock S, Design Justice : Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, MIT Press, 2020

Eisler R. et al., Nurturing Our Humanity : How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, Oxford University Press, 2019

Everard M., The Ecosystems Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Graeber D., Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House Publishing, 2011

Kropotkin P., Mutual Aid : A Factor of Evolution, 1902

Mazzucato M., The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, Public Affairs, 2018

Milton, D., On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem.”, Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887, 2012

Milton, D., Embodied sociality and the conditioned relativism of dispositional diversity, Autonomy, the Critical Journal of Interdisciplinary Autism Studies, 1(3), 1–7, 2014

Milton, D., Autistic expertise: A critical reflection on the production of knowledge in autism studies, Autism, 18(7), 794–802, 2014

Paul R. A., Mixed Messages : Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2015

Pluchino A., Biondoy A. E., Rapisardaz A., Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure, [physics.soc-ph], 2018

Reinhartz-Berger, I. et al., Domain Engineering : Product Lines, Languages, and Conceptual Models, Springer, 2013

Saijo T. et al., Future Design: Incorporating Preferences of Future Generations for Sustainability, Springer, 2020

Schumacher E. F., Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper Perennial, 1973

Stanish C., The Evolution of Human Co-operation : Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2017

Tomasello M., Why We Cooperate, Boston Review Books, 2009

Tomasello M., Becoming Human : A Theory of Ontogeny, Harvard University Press, 2019

Wahl D.C., Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press, 2016

Wilson D. S., Does Altruism Exist?, Yale University Press, 2015

Wilson D.S., This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, Pantheon Books, 2019

Yergeau, M., Authoring autism: On rhetoric and neurological queerness, Duke University Press, 2017

One thought on “Life beyond economics

  1. the new forms of Self-managed organizations go about balancing reliability and adaptability, and the balance they seek strikes through using structuring processes (rather than a fixed structure) to maintain order and clarity.

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