Welcome to Computational Social Sciences, a trimonthly exploration of interesting phenomena at the intersection of social sciences, computational sciences, and complex systems, in human and non-human living systems, from cells to societies. Authored by Anamaria Berea, Associate Professor of Computational and Data Sciences, this series will bring forth topics about processes, case studies, and fundamental laws that transcend traditional social systems boundaries.
Economics was informally named the “dismal science” in the 19th century, in order to denote the “dismal” predictions some economists of the era had about the future of humanity (e.g., population overgrowth). Although originally this name was given to economics in relation to the economic arguments against slavery, the name persisted in the 20th century far from its’ original meaning. But “dismal science” is definitely a misnomer for economics, which is actually a very interesting field of study… it is unlike physics, biology, or chemistry, or what most people associate with the term “science”. But make no mistake, economics is a science, with theories, models, methods, laws, and logical rigor; even labs and experiments.
Most people think of economics as simply the study of business or the economy of a country. Even to young aspiring economists, it is often perceived as a field of study focused on reducing poverty and inequality or understanding the intricacies of the financial world and wealth. While this is all part of economics, the field itself has evolved into so much more than that; from the management of resources inside the family in ancient times to nowadays the study of human behavior under various complex conditions, and has expanded all the way into the study of organizations, markets, and complex social phenomena.
Economics is studying a very diverse spectrum of phenomena, small and large, and it is employing an equally diverse range of methods to study them. In many ways, it is by itself an interdisciplinary field with overlaps with history, other social sciences, biology, psychology, mathematics, complex systems, linguistics, anthropology, physics, computer science, philosophy, and many more. Among some of these overlapping phenomena are collective behavior, sustainability, energy production and expenditure, economic and technological growth, to name only very few. But, more importantly, economic theories and methods that have been developed by studying our society, past and present, have also been usefully extended into biology (e.g., game theory, signaling, free riding, costs and benefits, etc.). Particularly complexity economics, which is looking at economic phenomena through the lens of complex systems, with emergence, coevolution, information and energy processes or ecological aspects, can advance our understanding of the universality of life in the universe. A property (mathematical or statistical if you wish) that has been thoroughly studied in complexity economics is scalability or the idea of growth following some specific rules.
One of the fundamental questions in science is how we get from one to two and from two to many, whether we are talking about atoms, cells, organisms, or human beings. In other words, this is a question of scalability – the part of evolution that is about growth and expansion. The very question “Are we alone?” implies growth (the possible existence of not one, but two or many). And which science has studied “the growth” and “the many” with mathematical and/or logical rigor? That would be economics and some other names we may find for these phenomena within economics would be “collective behavior” or “coordination” or “organization”.
We do live in a scalable universe, that can display the same properties from the minutest to the grandest, but that can also change to different properties when you jump a few orders of magnitude on this scale. Let me explain this with rough orders of magnitude as approximations for exactly measured growth. The purpose is not to be exact, but to place our thinking in the context of magnitudes and mathematical powers (as in x to the power y – xy). On our planet, the scale of life – in sizes of organisms – goes from a few micrometers (or nanometers, if we include viruses) to tens of meters (or a few acres if we consider Pando, the tree colony, or Armillaria, the fungus). This scale (linear, in meters) can therefore range from 10-9 to 103. The size of the atom is on the scale of 10-10 m, while the observable Universe is placed on the scale of 1026 m. We can therefore say that life on Earth has a scale range contained within the physical scale of the Universe. I believe it is a safe assumption to say that exo organisms, if they exist, would follow a size scale contained within the scale of the Universe; even more, if they do live on exoplanets or exomoons, their size, including their collective size, would be much smaller than the size of that exoplanet or exomoon. And it is very possible that the scale of their collective size would be constrained by economic rules (i.e., energetic or informational costs), the same way they are on Earth.
In terms of time scalability, the shortest living organism on Earth lives for about 24 hours (the mayflower), while the longest live for a few thousand years (trees). In terms of seconds, this puts life on Earth on a scale of 104 to 109 for individual organisms’ life spans; but life on Earth, as a whole, lies on a scale of 1017 (seconds). The age of the Universe is also on the scale of 1017 (multiplied by 4). But in scalability terms, we can see that life on Earth is closer to the age of the Universe than the lifespan of the mayflower is from the lifespan of a tree (not to forget that the actual difference between larger powers is much larger than the actual difference between smaller powers). In relative terms, this is showing us that variation at smaller scales is larger than variation at larger scales. Variations in scalability and relative growth have also been thoroughly studied by economics, especially with respect to the dynamic changes of systems, and another possible assumption with respect to life in the Universe is that it would follow relative changes in growth similar to the variance patterns of life on Earth.
“Scale”, by Geoffrey West, is a book that gives an account of many scalable laws and properties in nature and society, including the metabolisms, lifespans, brain size to body size ratios, and so on, and it can offer us some interesting benchmarks about evolution and scalability that we can extrapolate from. In looking at how economics would relate to scalability in life and nature, we can go in more depth not only with mathematical laws of scalability but also with how individuals become collectives in supraorganisms (also studied thoroughly by complex systems economics) and how relativistic, contextual measurements are being preserved in these supraorganisms (i.e., ant colonies, slime molds, cities, countries, financial systems).
In eusocial insects, the size of a colony can comprise a few hundred individuals or up to a few hundred million individuals (103 to 109); this scale is similar to individual organisms’ life spans. In human economies, organizations can size from a few individuals to a few million (10 to 106), while in nature, the lifespan of supraorganisms can range from a few decades (108) in eusocial insects to a few thousand years in corals (1011). The lifespan of human organizations can range from a few days to over a thousand years (1011). At the supraorganisms levels, the scales in nature and human economies are similar.
Firm sizes and city sizes also follow scalability (power) laws, by various measurements (employment, number of dwellers, etc.). The idea is that there are a few really big and many really small. Income inequality also follows a power law, which in economics is also known as the Pareto law (in terms of “many”) or the Matthew effect (in terms of “growth”). All this to say that there is definitely a scalability property associated with collective behavior, from individual to organization/supraorganism and from cell to multicellularity, and this is a feature of life that might be universal and span beyond the confinements of life on Earth.
The economy or collective action of a group of organisms is not the sum of individual actions and neither the full combinatorial spectrum of all possible interactions between the individual entities; it’s somewhere in between. Individuals cannot be fully connected with each other in the very same way that chemical molecules cannot fully connect with all other molecules. These processes and connections obey similar scaling laws and, in human organizations/supraorganims, many of the constraints or incentives of interactions are given by economic laws (e.g., costs and benefits, which also govern metabolisms).
While chasing the universals of life, we must remember that probably “the most universal” (as a figure of speech) feature of life is that it is also highly contextual and embedded in its’ environment. Paradoxically, this universal feature is relativism – but not Einstein’s relativism from physics. It is the relativism of the one to the many, of the organism to the supraorganism and of the living to the non-living environments. Relativism is also about co-evolution and both have been high and center to the study of complex phenomena and economics in trying to understand our life and society as changing, dynamic worlds.
With collective behavior, whether cooperative or competitive, comes communication, as another fundamental feature of life: from genes to societies, every entity communicates and through these links, the multicellularity or supraorganisms emerge. From communication, culture emerges in more evolved organisms, such as cetaceans, primates, or humans. And without culture, we would not be able to question our place in the grand scheme of living and economic things. Our economic lives provide us with useful incentives and constraints that make us adapt, evolve, fail, change the course of action and, with yet not fully understood intricacies, coexist as multitudes of life forms and organizations of life on just one planet. Some of these economic rules that cross species boundaries beyond human societies might be universal and give us insights into how life in distant worlds might not be so different from ours.
Citation: Anamaria Berea, Economics and the Search for Life, Network Law Rev. (September 2, 2022)