Wasteful Signals

One of the great things about competitive markets (in an economic sense) is that they reduce waste. If multiple firms are competing against each other to sell a good, each firm has an incentive to find a new way to produce their good that makes the process cheaper and quicker. This allows each firm to eliminate waste, and over time the efficiency of the market improves, costs come down, and we are able to produce a given thing using less energy and resources.

 

But when we look at living creatures and consider evolution, we don’t always see the same thing happening. “The problem with competitive struggles, however,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “is that they’re enormously wasteful.”

 

The simple view of evolution that I always held was that animal species evolve over time to become better. Survival of the fittest meant that smaller, slower, weaker animals in a population would die out, and we would be left with the best individuals and the best genes reproducing into the future. The resulting population would be smarter, faster, sleeker, and in some ways more efficient. But evolution, it turns out, is more complicated than this simple model, and survival of the fittest is not always the best way to describe how evolution works. There is still a lot of random chance, random accidents, and waste that can occur in evolution.

 

In an earlier post I shared Hanson and Simler’s story about redwood trees competing against themselves to become taller. The trees did not compete to live in as diverse an ecosystem as possible, and if they had, Simler and Hanson suggest the trees could have been much shorter and could have occupied more space. The trees are wasteful, driving toward new heights in a confined area rather than efficiently spreading out and remaining at a smaller size.

 

In many ways we do the same thing. Creating a beautiful painting is wonderful, but it is also a bit wasteful. One reason we may want to create art is to demonstrate that we can do something relatively difficult to impress other people. We deliberately create something that uses resources for no practical value as a way to demonstrate that we have extra resources to burn and extra time to spend practicing and creating art. It is an indirect way to say, look how impressive I am and look how many resources I have that I don’t have to spend my time accumulating more resources and can instead use them in any way I choose.

 

We create art and buy fancy sports cars to be wasteful with resources to show off and signal something about our suitability and desirability as a mate. There are other things happening here of course, but this is a key component. Animals develop expensive plumage to signal to mates. Some birds will build fancy nests with shiny objects in them to catch the eye of a potential mate, and others will battle among each other to show which animal is the most physically dominant. Shows of skill, strength, and suitability as a mate can be very expensive using energy, time, and resources that could otherwise go toward finding more food. Evolution has lead animals to be very wasteful in a way that we would not expect if evolution worked like an ideally functioning market. Evolution is not simply survival of the fittest, sometimes there are other elements that get us to waste a lot of resources in our signaling competitions to pass our genes along. Sometimes evolution is selecting for things that really don’t seem to demonstrate a lot of great fit in a direct sense for a species.

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