Wednesday, August 02, 2017


BEN CLAIR posts (1 August) on BLOMBERG HERE 
The Secret Economic Lives of Animals
Wasps do it, baboons do it. Economics isn’t just a human activity.
“Economists study human behavior. “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog,” Adam Smith sniffed in The Wealth of Nations. The ability to “exchange one thing for another,” he declared, “is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.” Later economists, inheriting Smith’s self-regard, rechristened man Homo economicus in the belief that rational self-interest defined the human species. Even John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economics, attributed our irrational choices to “animal spirits.”
But an animal spirit can actually be entrepreneurial. Consider a January study about paper wasps from the journal Nature Communications. A female paper wasp will recruit “helper” wasps to her nest to raise her offspring, and these helpers can usually choose from several different nests in a given area. The wasps are essentially making a trade: The top female offers helpers membership in her nest in exchange for childcare, and she can kick out a helper who doesn’t pull its weight.
What’s remarkable is that the terms of the wasps’ trade are determined by supply and demand. When the paper’s authors increased the number of nests in the field, they found that females were willing to tolerate smaller contributions from their helpers. The paper wasps behaved like any rent-seeking landlord, just as an economist would predict. A greater overall supply of wasp nests lowers the price of entry into any single nest. “In order to predict the level of help provided by a subordinate, it is necessary to take into account the state of the surrounding market,” the authors wrote.
If Adam Smith had strapped on a bee suit—or a safari jacket, or a scuba mask—he could have discovered that the animal kingdom is, in fact, a chamber of commerce. “Biological markets are all over the place,” says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.
These discoveries have not just deflated economists’ anthropocentrism but have challenged biological dogmas as well. “We all learned not to treat animals in an anthropomorphic way, but a theory that was produced to explain human behavior nevertheless matters in biology,” says Peter Hammerstein, Noë’s co-author and a professor of theoretical biology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. “In fact, I believe some of it works better in biology than in humans.”
Noë began to think about economics in biology in 1981 as he worked on a post-doctorate degree in Kenya. “A big baboon gave me the idea,” he says. Baboons live in large hierarchal groups, and Noë was interested in when and how low-ranking males teamed up to challenge a more dominant male to mate with a female. Cooperation was common in nature—not just between animals of the same species but also between different species (for example, a plant and its pollinator). But the origins of cooperation were a mystery. How could two animals work together when Darwin’s theory of evolution taught about survival of the fittest? Shouldn’t natural selection always favor ruthless self-interest?”
That is all I can reproduce wiithout trespassing on BLOMBERG’s patience in defence of its copyrights. Readers are urged to follow the link to BLOMBERG’s long article and read the rest. 
The majority of the article, reports on the detailed field work of modern biologists, in parts of the world then inaccessible to Adam Smith in the 18th Century, let alone access to the modern equipmental and mathematical techniques that are now the ordinary tools of field-based research subjects in biology.
I found the reported descriptions of co-operation between animals both interesting and revealing. However, why BEN CLAIR takes a cheap swipe at Adam Smith in this context I cannot understand.
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.” (Wealth of Nations, 1776).
In what way is that statement untrue? Why does Ben use the derogarity word “sniffed”? Did anybody in the 18th century observe two dogs behaving differently? Has anybody seen two dogs make a a “fair and deliberate exchange one thing for another”?
That animals can co-operate deliberately was known to Smith. Indeed, he discusses near exceptions to his statement in Wealth of Nations:
“When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. … In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is intirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. 
[See the two footnotes, 4 and 5:
[4 The example of the greyhounds occurs in LJ (B) 2x9, ed. Carman I69. LJ (A) vi.44 uses the example of 'hounds in a chace' and again at 57. Cf. LJ (B) e22, ed. Carman XTt: 'Sometimes, indeed, animals seem to act in concert, but there is never any thing like a bargain among them. Monkeys when they rob a garden throw the fruit from one to another till they deposit it in the hoard, but there is always a scramble about the divi- sion of the booty, and usually some of them are killed.' In LJ (A) vi.57 a similar example is based on the Cape of Good Hope.
[5 In EARLY DRAFT: 2.12  an additional sentence is added at this point: 'When any uncommon misfortune befals it, its piteous and doleful cries will sometimes engage its fellows, and sometimes prevail even upon man, to relieve it.' 
With this exception, and the first sentence of this paragraph, the whole of the preceding material follows ED 2.t2, very closely and in places verbatim. The remainder of the paragraph follows ED 2.I2 to its close.
The above shows the risks of merely reading Adam Smith from singular quotations and from not reading his Works in their full context.
In the most interesting reports of observed animal behaviour by biologists drawn to our attention by Ben Clair’s report we deepen our knowledge of animal and insect behaviours and that can only be a positive contribution.
’Tis a pity that Ben spoils his objectivity with quite silly and misleading semi-mocking of Adam Smith who writing in the 18th century. 

What were Ben Clair’s 18th-century ancestors doing and contributing to the sum total of human knowledge in the 1770s? Precious little I surmise! 


Post a Comment

<< Home