Nassim Taleb: Two Myths About Rivalry, Scarcity, Competition, and Cooperation

June 28th, 2014

I’m delighted to find that someone with the necessary statistical chops has answered a question I’ve been asking for a while: Have any of the 130+ evolution scientists who’ve savaged Wilson and Nowak’s Eusociality paper (and Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth) gone deep into the maths of their model (laid out in their technical appendix)? I check periodically, but don’t follow the field carefully.

According to this Taleb Facebook post, the answer’s still no, almost four years after the paper was published.

Emphasis mine, links in the post:

There are two myths that prevail in academic circles (hence the general zeitgeist) because of mental contagion and confirmatory effects (simply from the way researchers look at data and the way it is disseminated): 

1) That people are overly concerned by hierarchy (and pecking order), and that hierarchy plays a real role in life, a belief generalized from the fact that *some* people care about hierarchy *most the time* (most people may care about hierarchy *some of the time* but it does not mean hierarchy is a driver). The problem is hierarchy plays a large role zero-sum environments like academia and corrupt economic regimes (meaning someone wins at the expense of others) so academics find it natural so they tend to see it in real life and environments where if may not be prevalentMany many people don’t care and there is no need to pathologize them as “not motivated” –academics who publish tend to be “competitive” and “competitive” in a zero-sum environment is deadly. I haven’t seen any study looking at things the other way.

2) That “competition” plays a large role compared to *cooperation* in evolutionary settings –of course if you want ruthless competition you will find examples and can model it with bad math. The latter point is extremely controversial, Wilson and Nowak have been savagely attacked for their papers (with >130 signatures contesting it) and, what is curious NOBODY was able to debunk the math (very very very rigorous backup material). If Nowak/Wilson were wrong someone would have shown where, and in spite of the outpour of words nobody did.

I’d condense my thinking on the subject as follows:

1) People mistake rivalry for scarcity. If one tribe excludes all the others from a water source, forces them to do their will to get water, there’s obviously scarcity, right? Wrong.

Don’t get me started on the sacralization of (largely inherited) “property rights,” ownership — the right to exclude others.

2) They don’t understand that competition’s only virtue is increasing and improving cooperation. Cooperation — non-kin altruism, eusociality, etc. — is the thing that got us to the top of the food chain. Cooperation is what wins the battle against scarcity.

Competition fetishists think that competition is always good because it sometimes improves cooperation, even though it frequently does the exact opposite.

Think: trade wars. Or just…wars.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

  1. July 12th, 2014 at 08:27 | #1

    Since I’ve been disagreeing with you a bit lately I’m glad to say I’m in 100% agreement on this one.

    I think we should think of the economic primitive as human productive activity, as opposed to discrete goods that are consumed and exchanged. Property and its derivatives are at best a device for solving a coordination problem. The other day I was playing with the idea that money (and property in general) is really a kind of talking stick, like people use in meetings. The token itself is meaningless, and there’s no objective constraint that would prevent everyone from talking at once. But we’ve decided that (1) the conversation will be more productive if we coordinate on a single speaker at a time, and (2) for whatever reason we want to hypostasize the “right to speak” in the form of an inherently meaningless token, rather than assigning it through some explicit decision.

    Capitalism layers more on top of this — including various hierarchies — but I think if we want the simplest, most general statement of the economic problem this is a good place to start.

    Incidentally Marx frames things like this in the chapter in Capital on “Cooperation”.

  2. July 12th, 2014 at 09:08 | #2

    And by the way, this is why I disagree with you on the absolute utility thing. From my point of view, the problem is we’ve got this obsolete coordination mechanism and the goal is to stop using it, not to create some new problem for it to solve.

    Like, we’ve been using this talking stick for a while but now we all know each other and the conversation flows naturally. Having only one person allowed to speak at a time is awkward and slows things down, prevents us from splitting into smaller groups, etc. (Plus there’s this one guy who always monopolizes the stick.) So we could say, “ok, let’s say you just need the stick when you want to introduce a new topic, or make some difficult argument. Yes, it will be harder than to just know who is talking, but we need to try because that stuff is what is important.” And then we’ll have to come up with a bunch of rules about what counts as a new topic and so on. Or, we could just stop using the damn stick.

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