A writer mines a history of the cosmos for economic insights.
One of the great challenges of economics is the persistence of complexity and chaos, the two principal epistemological opponents of any rational model of prediction. Grassie (H+/ –: Transhumanism and Its Critics, 2011, etc.) attempts to recruit help confronting this problem from “Big History,” a consortium of theoretical disciplines collaboratively conjoined to explain the evolution of everything, including human beings. According to the author, the structural dynamics of economics and the cosmos are remarkably similar—they exhibit comparable evolutionary cycles, emergent complexities, tipping points, and points of chaos—and as a result, a “common framework” for understanding both is possible. To that end, he furnishes an impressively concise account of the development of just about everything, discussing the nature of time, matter, energy, sound, and the evolution of humans, including the appearance of consciousness and the construction of social hierarchies. The ultimate objective is an articulation of the virtues and vices of complexity and the manner in which grasping its permutations at the cosmological level can provide a “competitive edge today in a world of uncertainties.” Grassie also discusses the various “existential challenges” that humanity faces, including “anthropogenic” ones like overpopulation and “natural” ones such as climate change.
The author gracefully translates forbiddingly technical subject matter into accessible, even vibrant prose. In addition, his philosophical moderation is laudable—he ably discusses the limitations of any model of prediction when an evolving and profoundly complex system is being analyzed. But his account can be complacently reductionist—for example, to declare that science has shown “independent reason is a myth” and that “rationality is largely a slave to our emotions” is both vague and disputable. But the chief problem with Grassie’s study is that it’s never obvious why the examination of complexity at the scientific level is necessary for the economic discussion. The use of “Big History” as a running metaphor seems to involve more work than it’s worth and, as the author points out, “gives us little contextual insight into the diverse pathways actualized in any particular evolutionary or economic niche.” He cleverly constructs these metaphors, comparing the economy to “ecologies of bacteria and eukaryotes,” but struggles to explain why this amounts to “more than a just metaphor for economics.” Surely one can master the nature of economics without a primer on photosynthesis. In some sense, it might be reasonable to contend: “You become a danger to yourself, your firm, and your clients if you don’t understand your hunter-gatherer brain and how to effectively compensate.” But this is only true if Grassie means one must understand human nature to effectively survive a competitive market, which certainly doesn’t entail understanding the evolution of the human brain. The author’s account of cell biology is admirably succinct but seems misplaced in a book that promises practical counsel to investors.
A guide that uses an intelligent chronicle of scientific history to bolster a less than persuasive economic argument.