Capitalism and opabinia

“You get what you deserve.”

This is how people defend capitalism, right? At least: those who want to claim that capitalism is a moral system defend it on this premise. Capitalism creates a just universe (“just” in the sense of “justice”), where people who work hard thrive and people who are lazy do not. You get what you deserve.

A while back I was reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and was interested in this observation from the author, Nassim Taleb:

“I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky… not by giving rewards or “incentives” for skill.”

For Taleb, capitalism doesn’t reward hard work or talent: the rewards are accidents that arise from change. If you want to succeed in a capitalist system, Taleb advocates is “tinkering”: trying things until, by random chance, something happens to give you a boon.

I think Taleb is completely right… but this creates a problem for people who want to believe capitalism is a moral system. If capitalism rewards randomly, then it is not just. Foolish people will rise to the top, if only they are foolish in the right way at the right time.

* * * * * * *

Whenever I think about capitalism, I imagine myself with five eyes. I’d like to explain why.

One of the big debates in biological evolution is the question of how much the living world around us is a product of happenstance, and how much has been crafted by the long process of evolution optimizing organisms to have the best structure for its environment.

Some things are obviously happenstance. For example, there is no real reason humans (and many other animals) have five fingers instead of four or six. At some point, some ancestor with five fingers was particularly successful.. probably for completely unrelated reasons. Perhaps even by change. Or, perhaps the gene for five fingers is of a particular shape or in a particular position on the DNA strand that happens to be passed on more effectively than genes that may have given rise to four or six fingers.

Either way, over time, the five-fingered variety of animal took over… not because five fingers are inherently better at walking or holding or manipulating objects, but simply because that was the “path” that evolution happened to take.

On the other hand, the fact that wings have a particular shape–regardless of whether they are on birds or insects or flying lizards–is not an accident. The shapes of wings are all very similar because the characteristics that wings have in common are also those characteristics needed for wings to do what they do, namely: get an organism to fly.

So, the debate among evolutionary scientists is this: how much of what we see is in the first category, and how much is in the second?

In Stephen J. Gould’s book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, he illustrates this difference with a thought experiment he calls “replaying life’s tape”:

You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past—say, to the seas of the Burgess Shale. Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original. If each replay strongly resembles life’s actual pathway, then we must conclude that what really happened pretty much had to occur. But suppose that the experimental versions all yield sensible results strikingly different from the actual history of life? What could we then say about the predictability of self-conscious intelligence? or of mammals? or of vertebrates? or of life on land? or simply multicellular persistence for 600 million years?

If you are not familiar, the Burgess Shale contains fossilized remains from the Cambrian explosion, a period of history when all kinds of weird and wild creatures evolved. It was an explosion of variety and opportunity, almost as if nature was “trying out” different styles of organism: different body types, different shapes of appendages. One of my favorite creatures from that time period was the opabinia: a weird sea creature with five eye-stalks and a long nose like a vacuum cleaner nozzle with claws on the end.

Most of these “experimental” body-types died out and have no living relatives today. Why? Was it because these long-deceased styles of organism were not as efficient or effective as the ones that survived? That’s what the classic naive notion of “survival of the fittest” might lead you to believe.

Or was it just because the world was harsh, and organisms were dying by the millions, and the ones that survived were the ones that just happened to survive?

If we replayed the tape again, would two-eyed, bipedal humans emerge again? Or would you be sitting there and reading this article with your five eye stalks, and laughing through your long beclawed snout?

* * * * * * *

I think these two topics are related.

The belief that capitalism leads to a “just universe” is similar to the belief in convergent evolution: the idea that if you replay the tape of history over and over again, you will get the same (or every similar) results.

You think to yourself: Sure, people are born into circumstances beyond their control. Sure, some people are lucky and others are unlucky with their families or the place they were born. But on the whole, people who are better people (harder working, more skilled, more able) will increase their success, and people who are worse people (lazy, clumsy, useless) will fail. When you reply the tape of their lives over and over, with different initial conditions, the successful people will keep on succeeding because of the type of people they are, just as the unsuccessful people will keep failing because of their failures as people.

It is the same kind of belief, the same kind of faith, that allows a person to say: The way life looks now is the way it should look, and the way it must look… the organisms we see have survived because they are better than the ones that have died off!

It feels good to believe in a just universe… but how can we know?

Did opabinia get what it deserved?

Or if things had gone slightly differently a few hundred million years ago, would I be walking around with five eyes right now?

That’s why I always imagine myself with five eyes, whenever I think about capitalism.


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