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OP-ED: Nature follows supply and demand

  • Published at 09:40 pm October 31st, 2020
Gorilla economics at work PIXABAY

Even other apes understand the concept of trade

We are told that elderly male chimpanzees have fewer but better friends than the young firebrands of the same species. Further, as this newspaper reports, that we should take note of this given that pan troglodytes is our closest extant genetic cousin -- there are lessons here for us. 

As one of those homo sapiens ageing into thus same stage of life, I agree entirely. Not just for the cynical reason that with age comes the wisdom that many people aren’t worth knowing and it’s better to concentrate attention on those few who are. After all, time is becoming ever shorter and should be put to the best possible use.

Within our close genetic relatives, the apes, species tend to come in pairs, a gracile and a robust form. Not all of which survived to the present day, the gracile gorilla does not, the robust humans -- Neanderthals, possibly Denisovans -- do not. Among chimps both do, what we call the chimpanzee and the bonobo. 

We can look to them and note different facets of behaviour, which is interesting. Given that we share at least 99% of our DNA with those two species, this is useful. But it’s also worth recalling that we share 50% of our DNA with a banana, so the ability to compare across species might be wider than we generally think.

We here are more concerned with economics than with, say, sexual behaviour which, in bonobos, is notably amenable and even more than a little louche. Well, OK, here, specifically, we are more interested even if the subject is of interest at other times. And there are things we can observe in those other apes which do speak directly to our own economic behaviour.

For example, Adam Smith talked of the “innate propensity to truck and barter” among our own species. We will swap something we value less for something we value more. We even go further, in punishing those we think are pulling a fast one, or offering less than a fair value. We see this behaviour in some, at least of those other ape species. Smith, of course, lived long before evolution was an accepted fact so his meaning of “innate” didn't go back as far in time as our own. 

And we now can prove that trade predates even our species. Certain forms of stone tools have been found hundreds of miles away from the stone itself. There is no logical source for these, other than trade among forebears so distant that they weren’t even human, even if they were humanoid.  

This is strong evidence of that exchange of goods being a fundamental of our development path -- truly innate.

At which point we should probably note that there were no countries back then -- that was something that had to wait another few million years. Our forebears traded entirely unencumbered by political lines drawn on a map -- a useful guide to how our own trading should be conducted too. We should go even further too. Plants and fungi trade. Their genetic pathways having diverged so long ago that they’re not just different species but different kingdoms of life. 

The sugars that the plants produce are traded with the fungi that inhabit the root systems. The return trade being the phosphorous necessary for the pant functioning and that sugar production. This is not a simple trade either, we see a price system in action. The phosphorous is preferentially moved and then traded to where it is in shortest supply, and so gains the trade of more sugar in return.

Observations of this wider world of life really do give us examples of the economic activity that we ourselves engage in. More than that, we see things which are regarded as controversial in human economic affairs, things that are still argued about. For there are those who insist that trade is something that must be limited -- but if apes can grasp the concept then why can’t we? 

We even have, in those plant roots, evidence of supply and demand curves in operation yet there are all too many who deride the price system among us humans. Or, as we might put it, if the bugs in the ground under our feet can grasp the basic elements of the Economics 101 class and the diagrams on the first page of the textbook, shouldn’t we demand that our politicians at least attempt to do the same?

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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