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Markets: An Extended Phenotype

My favorite living writer is the biologist Richard Dawkins. His prose is both poetic and lucid; his ideas are deep, creative, and intriguing. Whenever a new book of his hits the bookstores, I buy and read it immediately.

His 1982 book, The Extended Phenotype, is vintage Dawkins – drawing profound and previously unthought of connections out of rather ordinary observations. According to dictionary.com, a phenotype is "The observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences." Or, as Dawkins puts it in his just-released The Ancestor’s Tale, "A ‘phenotype’ is that which is influenced by genes."

Until Dawkins published The Extended Phenotype, everyone (or so I gather; I’m no biologist) understood phenotypes to be limited to bodily characteristics – for example, hair, penises, tree leaves, kangaroo pouches, eagle wings, shark fins, and on and on and on. Through natural selection, genes ‘fashion’ organisms’ phenotypes to maximize their (the genes’) prospects for survival and for being passed on to future generations of organisms that carry the genes creating particular phenotypes.

In The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins pointed out that phenotypes are not limited to things attached to bodies. They include things created by genes but that aren’t attached to bodies – for example, beaver dams and groundhog holes. A bird’s nest is created by bird genes no less than is a bird’s wing; genes ‘program’ birds to build nests; they do so because nests promote bird survival.  Therefore, bird nests are an extended phenotype of birds.

Are markets an extended phenotype of humans? A case can be made that they are. We are programmed to trade, to exchange, to seek bargains, all in order to make ourselves better off and, hence, to promote our survival. Markets certainly do promote our survival. By promoting the division of labor, exchange increases the total amount that humans produce and enable those with relatively little in the way of valuable resources to increase the value of their holdings. For sure, without the enormously deep division of labor that now marks much of the globe, and the market institutions that sustain and guide it, billions of us would perish.

So, yes, as I understand the concept of phenotypes, the market-driven extensive global division of labor is an extended human phenotype. It’s in our genes. (A related argument is offered in Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue.)


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