Who would have thought that a couple of head-butting animals could so accurately describe the folly of arms races and the woes afflicting developed world economies?!
Who was the greater economist — Adam Smith or Charles Darwin?
Since Darwin, the pioneering naturalist, never thought of himself as an economist, the question seems absurd. Yet his understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith’s. Within the next century, I predict, Darwin will be seen by most economists as the intellectual founder of their discipline.
Smith is renowned for his “invisible hand” theory. According to his modern disciples, it holds that unbridled market forces harness self-interest to serve the common good. Darwin understood that individual and group interests sometimes coincide, as in Smith’s framework. But Darwin also saw that interests at the two levels often conflict sharply. In those cases, he said, individual interests trump.
A spectacular example from nature illustrates his point. The massive antlers of bull elk are often four feet across and weigh more than 40 pounds. Why so big? Darwin’s explanation began with the observation that bull elk, like males in most vertebrate species, take more than one mate if they can. If some succeed, others end up with no mate at all, making them the ultimate losers in the contest to pass along their genes. So bulls fight bitterly for females, and mutations coded for larger antler size help them win. That arms race has produced the gigantic antlers we see today.
As a group, bulls could better escape from wolves in densely wooded areas if their antlers were smaller, yet any individual bull with relatively small antlers would never win a mate. So bull elk are stuck with unwieldy antlers.
Many 19th-century social Darwinists mistook Darwin’s message to be that whatever emerges from the struggle to survive is morally praiseworthy. But Darwin believed no such thing. He understood that competition often favored traits that brought misery to all, and he knew animals like elk could do nothing about it. But human beings, who face similar conflicts, have better options.