The Naive Theory of Competition

From From the Trees to the Stars

DRAFT, Ollie Rankin, November 2013

The Naive Theory of Competition is that through repeated competition against each other, the pool of competitors become better, and that ultimately the best competitor prevails.

It's an attractive theory and is borne out by the evidence of biological evolution - but only if you misinterpret the evidence of biological evolution.

In fact, competition doesn't inherently promote improvement or foster progress.

It actually promotes specialisations that are specifically suited to surviving the current set of threats and exploiting the current circumstances.

The reason that the evolutionary process on Earth has produced such versatile and successful creatures as ourselves, is that this evolutionary process has taken place on a changing planet within a vast ecosystem of diverse and changing threats and circumstances.

Geological and climactic changes, as well as cataclysmic events like volcanoes and asteroid impacts, have an effect on the entire biosphere. The fact that the Earth's ecosystem is so massively interdependent, means that any evolution in the biology or behavior of a given plant or animal to compensate for changing circumstances is going to ripple outward to all the other plants and animals that it interacts with. And so on.

Since mankind began playing a significant role in manipulating the ecosystem, there has been a marked drop in biodiversity, which is a key indicator of ecosystem health and adaptability.

It could be said that competition is most productive when it is evenly matched. In a lopsided competition (such as our current economic situation or a guerrilla war) the underdog has no productive means to change the balance in their favor. So they resort to destructive tactics instead. Meanwhile the side with the upper hand holds all the cards and in order to protect their position need only oppress the underdog. Again see the US military and the 1% as examples.

But even evenly matched competition wastes effort and resources that could otherwise be spent in the pursuit of more worthwhile goals.

As long as we have to work against each other to satisfy our basic needs, we are prevented from pursuing higher objectives.

Competition promotes selfishness and greed.

Because there is so much uncertainty about the future in a competitive society, we naturally horde what resources we can for ourselves and our families, irrespective of whether our having too much prevents others from having enough.

In a closed and stable ecosystem, competition leads to over-specialisation, homogeneity and, ultimately, to fragility.

Democracy and Capitalism are both philosophically based on the Naive Theory of Competition. In both cases we optimistically believe that an open competition will inevitably result in the optimal outcome.

However, they each take place in an increasingly stable and homogeneous ecosystem and it should be no surprise that rather than fostering Progress, they are both in Decline.