RH doesn’t understand ecology?

Robin Hanson says this at Overcoming Bias:

While nature shows and nature lovers often give lip service to the wonders of natural selection, in fact they mainly love the particular species alive now.  When nature adapts to recent changes, nature lovers mostly disapprove.  Most folks react similarly when economic competition creates winners and losers; they say they approve of the competition that led to our current wealth, but they disapprove when new winners, e.g., Walmart or Borders, displace old losers, e.g., small stores.

Hanson’s general point is well taken – competition in the natural world produces new winners and these new winners may not satisfy our aesthetic values. Hanson seems to think we should just over this.

Ecology is not so simple though. Human development is changing the environment on a different order of magnitude than evolution works. Species that are well suited to human changes may actually do longer term harm to the environment than local (in time and space) successful adaptations may suggest.

For example, a bird species may nest well in tall buildings and so their numbers grow, straining the resources of the local fish stocks. These downstream affects may adversely affect ecosystems, causing other species to die off – including the original birds. Population explosions that represent temporary success are not necessarily stable. We may only be seeing the upswing of a population bubble that will dramatically burst. Or maybe we’ll see a slow decline in environmental integrity that affects our own fitness.

As an economist, I’m surprised Robin Hanson isn’t considering the long term affects of over-enthusiastic growth.

Hanson wants to draw a parallel between our capitalist systems and other ecosystems. And while many exist – it’s based on the same principles after all – he forgets that animal societies lack institutions that keep capitalism running by protecting property rights (which prevents the type of over-exploitation that invasive species are famous for).

3 Comments  »

  1. Robin Hanson says:

    The new human rates of change are not temporary. Species that cannot keep up with these new rates are lost causes.

    • Zachary Kurtz says:

      But should they be? Especially when considering that many aspects of human lifestyle (and not just aesthetics or sense of quaint morality) rely on these species.

      I will predict that your answer will be that human capitalism will engineer ways around the for these species (does anybody really need to eat a rare fish species, for example?).

      To that, I say, we really don’t know how ecological networks affect us. We’ll be sorry if these networks are disrupted so that they (however temporarily) affect our own standards of living.

  2. olimay says:

    In the comments Roko gives some links to some of Hanson’s other writings that are related in that they talk about human ecology.

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