Home > Uncategorized > A review of Carey King’s ‘The Economic Superorganism’

A review of Carey King’s ‘The Economic Superorganism’

from Blair Fix

If you are interested in the megatrends of the 21st century, then Carey King’s new book The Economic Superorganism should be on your reading list. It is a well-written, meticulously researched opus on how to understand the sustainability problems that face humanity.

In many ways, the book covers well-trodden ground. King is an engineer who is trained in the systems thinking pioneered by MIT engineers Donella and Dennis Meadows. (The Meadows’ book The Limits to Growth was the original gauntlet drop in the debate about the future of economic growth). Like the Meadows, King is concerned with the biophysical limits of the economy, and how that relates to the exploitation of energy.

Several other recent books have delved into the role of energy in driving economic growth. (For instance, Energy and the Wealth of Nations and The Economic Growth Engine). Yet King’s book is unique, because he has framed his arguments in a surprising way.1 He has focused on narratives.

Energy narratives 

Before discussing King’s narrative framework, it’s worth pausing for some reflection. Scientists who study the biophysical limits of the human economy run head-on into a cultural divide between the natural and social sciences. These ‘two cultures’ (as C.P. Snow called them) do not speak the same language.

I can testify to this divide. I have had many frustrating conversations with social scientists who are incredulous that the laws of thermodynamics apply to human societies. (They do.) And I have had equally frustrating conversations with natural scientists (particularly physicists) who insist that there must be a simple equation that describes human behavior. (There is not.)

Reading ‘Superorganism’, I can tell that King has had similar discussions. His response is brilliant. He grounds the hard core of his ideas in the principles of physics and systems science. Yet he frames the debate about these ideas in terms of narratives. The result is a surprisingly non-polemic book that will entice both natural-science and social-science readers.

The linchpin in King’s thesis is the narrative framework shown below — a divide in how we see the future of humanity. Techo-optimists believe there are no inherent limits to growth, because human ingenuity can solve all of our problems. Techno-realists, in contrast, think infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.

Figure 1: Carey King’s narrative framework.

Today, these opposing worldviews, King observes, play out most prominently in the debate between fossil-fuel advocates and proponents of renewables energy. Fossil-fuel advocates tend to be techno-optimists, while renewable proponents tend to be techo-realists. Looking at the subtleties in these worldviews, however, King notes that they can be technology specific. Renewables proponents are often techo-realists about fossil fuels, but can be techno-optimists about the potential of renewable energy. (This was an ‘aha!’ moment for me … an idea that was suddenly made clear by King’s narrative framework.)

By focusing on energy narratives, King deftly bridges the gap between the natural and social sciences. As a result, there is something in the book for everyone.

Let’s start with people trained in the social sciences. Many social scientists will be intrinsically interested in King’s analysis of narratives. The result (I hope) is that they will be receptive when he weaves into these narratives basic principles of thermodynamics. King’s description of how physicists define and measure ‘energy’, ‘power’, and ‘work’ is among the best I have encountered.

Also interesting to social scientists is King’s fluency with philosophy. Science, King argues, is based on a belief in induction — the idea that we can generalize narrow observations to arrive at universal laws. The philosopher David Hume famously argued that there are no purely logical grounds for using inductive reasoning. Nonetheless, it is how most scientists think.

As an example, King notes that we cannot prove that the laws of thermodynamics hold everywhere. All we can do is show that no experiment has ever contradicted these laws. Scientists therefore assume that the laws of thermodynamics are universal, applying to atoms, animals, and economies. This is the scientific and philosophical underpinning of ‘techno-realism’. It is a worldview based on the cumulative weight of evidence.

Now to what ‘Superorganism’ brings to those trained in the natural sciences. To the natural scientist, the social sciences appear as a dizzying array of mutually conflicting theories that have persisted for centuries. Nothing similar exists in the natural sciences. What’s going on here?

The answer is that in the social sciences, narratives are king. When you look under the hood of many social-science theories (such as neoclassical economics or Marxism), there is little empirical content. Instead, there is a compelling narrative. The adherents of different social-science schools are captivated by the narrative, and the resulting worldview it justifies. By dissecting the narratives around the limits to growth, King gives context to ideas that are otherwise difficult (for the natural scientist) to understand.

A ‘techno-realist’ himself, King does an admirable job of presenting opposing arguments, often letting ‘techno-optimists’ speak for themselves. As a result, ‘Superorganism’ is a veritable compendium of techno-optimist remarks. Here, for instance, is King quoting Milton Friedman on how to tell if a resource is exhaustible:

… economically you have a very simple test of whether anything is an exhaustible resource, namely: is its price rising over time?

Milton Friedman (1978)

King resists the urge to ridicule Friedman’s narrative, but instead patiently breaks down its reasoning and flaws.2

‘Superorganism’ is at its best in Chapter 3, where King applies his narrative framework to the fossil fuels versus renewables debate. Having read this chapter after the recent Texas blackouts, I found it remarkably prescient. King anticipates much of the rhetoric that followed the blackouts. With little evidence, many pundits blamed the grid failure on renewables, which they deemed ‘unreliable’.

King (a Texan himself) anticipates this narrative, and breaks it down by focusing on the concept of ‘reliability’. What we perceive as ‘reliable’ (or not) depends on the time-frame we chose to analyze. Do we mean ‘reliable’ over seconds, minutes, days, years, or decades? Wind, King points out, can be unreliable over the time-frame of days. But it is highly reliable over the time-frame of years and decades. Coal, in contrast, is reliable over days and months. But it is likely to be unreliable over decades (as the resource is exhausted).

King’s patient analysis of the competing energy narratives is a welcome break from the polemics that are common in popular discourse.

The HARMONEY model

In ‘Superorganism’, King’s main technical contribution is his HARMONEY model. This is a systems model similar to the World3 model used in The Limits to Growth. But what is important about HARMONEY is that it incorporates monetary dynamics such as income distribution and debt. Hence the model’s name … HARMONEY … which stands for ‘Human And Resources with MONEY’. (For details about the model, see this paper.)

Figure 2 shows King’s key result. Without tuning it to do so, the HARMONEY model predicts that as resource use plateaus, the wage share of income should decline (top right). It so happens that this is exactly what ocurred in the United States. As energy use (per person) plateaued, the wage share of income plummeted (top left). HARMONEY also predicts that after resource use peaks, debt (as a share of GDP) should explode and then later peak (bottom right). Again, the model’s prediction is eerily similar to US history (bottom left).

Figure 2: Results from King’s HARMONEY model. Top left: the wage share of income in the US declined as energy use per person plateaued. Top right: King’s HARMONEY model predicting the same phenomenon. Bottom left: The growth and peak of US corporate and financial debt. Bottom right: King’s HARMONEY model predicting the same phenomenon.

Of course, if you are familiar with modeling, you know that just because a model gives ‘good results’ does not mean that it is ‘correct’. The assumptions behind the model must also be consistent with evidence. Given HARMONEY’s intriguing results, I’ve marked it on my to do list to have a good look at the model’s foundations.

One more thing to mention is that HARMONEY does not use an aggregate production function. This is important, because there are many problems with such functions. Perhaps the most glaring flaw is that the standard production function (the Cobb-Douglas) is a tautology. It is a rearrangement of a national accounting identity. Hence, when systems modelers use such a function, they undermine what may otherwise be a sound model.3 By not using a production function, HARMONEY avoids this mistep.

The economy as a ‘superorganism’

To move beyond the competing narratives about energy and the economy, King suggests we adopt a new narrative — ‘the economy as a superorganism’. I have mixed feelings about this metaphor.

The ‘superorganism’ narrative works well for emphasizing the biophysical nature of the economy. Like an organism, human societies use resources to maintain and grow their structure. That’s a nice way to emphasize biophysical constraints on the economy.

Where the superorganism narrative falls short, however, is that it tends to downplay conflict. Yes, humans do cooperate much like the cells within organisms. But we also fight. We commit crime. We exploit one another. We go to war. True, there is conflict within organisms — for instance between cancer cells and the immune system — but it is a poor allegory for human conflict.

We can improve the superorganism narrative, I think, by making two changes. First, we switch from singular to plural — superorganism to superorganisms. This switch to plural emphasizes that there is competition between human groups. Today, we (arguably) have a single world economy. But this is a historical anomaly. Throughout most of history, there were many competing factions of humanity — competing superorganisms.

Second, we should place these human superorganisms in the context of major evolutionary transitions. The effect of doing so is to emphasize internal conflict. The major evolutionary transitions, if you’re not familiar, are leaps in how life organized. Life began, presumably, as self-replicating molecules. Somehow these molecules transitioned into organizing in groups of proteins and DNA. From these proteins came prokaryotic cells, which later merged to form eukaryotic cells. These eukaryotes then grouped together to form multi-cellular organisms. And finally, some multi-cellular organisms began to organize in large groups, paving the way for the first ‘superorganisms’.

What’s important about these major transitions is that they all involve suppressing competition. Autonomous agents that once competed with one another (cell vs. cell, animal vs. animal) evolved to cooperate. The degree to which there is cooperation (rather than competition) is the degree to which a new ‘individual’ emerges. In other words, we conceive of multicellular organisms as ‘individuals’ precisely because there is so little competition between the constituent cells. The human transition to ‘superorganism’, in contrast, is far less complete. There remains rampant conflict within human groups. Placing human ‘superorganisms’ within the context of major evolutionary transitions acknowledges this internal conflict.

To be fair, King does adopt an evolutionary framework in his discussion of the economic superorganism. But he focuses on the gene-meme approach promoted by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. My opinion is that the human transition to ‘superorganisms’ is better understood using the theory of multi-level selection and cultural evolution proposed by David Sloan Wilson and Peter Turchin (among others).4 I won’t split hairs, however, as a book review is not the place to debate basic tenets of evolutionary biology.

A bitter pill

Speaking of evolutionary thinking, it is when considering neoclassical economics from an evolutionary standpoint that King is most poignant. Could it be, he asks, that “economies organized via neoclassical economics are more fit … than those organized via other economic systems and rules”? King shudders at the possibility:

For me, it is a bitter pill to swallow to even contemplate that this hypothesis might be true. I never imagined I would write that neoclassical economics might have some enhanced usefulness over more biophysically based approaches to economic modeling. At this time, neoclassical economics is clearly the most pervasive economic meme. As a cultural construct, it is winning the evolutionary game of self-replication.

This is indeed a bitter pill … one that I have been forced to swallow myself.5 Fortunately, admitting that neoclassical economics is winning the game of evolution does not require a scientific concession. That’s because false ideas often beat out true ones. (Hence the success of Donald Trump.) For this reason, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that successful belief systems are often “massively fictional in their portrayal of the world.”6

In the game of evolution, Wilson observes, it is not a belief system’s scientific veracity that matters. What’s important is its affect on human behavior. If those who hold worldview X outcompete people with worldview Y, worldview X spreads. Only in rare circumstances, however, will worldview X be the same as the scientific truth. That’s because the scientific truth is singular, but the range of possible worldviews is practically infinite.

Back to economics. For those of us who are concerned with sustainability, it’s worth speculating about why neoclassical economics has spread. To do so, we can return to King’s narrative framework (Figure 1). Neoclassical economists tend to be ‘techno-optimists’ who believe that economic growth can continue indefinitely. And it’s easy to understand why they hold this worldview: the neoclassical model omits the biophysical basis of human society.

In a full world, this omission is likely to be suicidal in the long run. But neoclassical economics did not originate in a full world. It originated in an empty one.7 In this empty world, it was the societies that expanded the fastest that won. Now think of the cultural differences between the winners and the losers. The winners were Europeans, who pursued imperialist policies with no regard for the inhabitants (human or otherwise) of the regions they conquered. The losers were indigenous populations, who were keenly aware of resources limits.

In the (over)full world towards which we’re headed, my guess (hope?) is that neoclassical economics will become a losing belief system. The question is, what will replace it? King hopes (as do I) that it will be replaced by a biophysical understanding of the economy. On that front, King’s book, with its focus on narratives, is a step in the right direction. That’s because when it comes to belief systems, narrative is king.

The energy conversation

King’s ‘Superorganism’ is an important contribution to the sustainability discussion. It helps make sense of the competing worldviews that dominate political debates, while also highlighting the physical principles that govern human economies.

On the final page of ‘Superorganism’, King writes:

Too often people use the energy and economic narratives to speak past each other rather than engage in thoughtful conversations on these tradeoffs.

I hope this book better enables these conversations.

In the on-going discussion about sustainability and energy, people will likely continue to speak past each other. Still, for those who are willing to listen, King’s book is a welcome addition to the conversation.

  1. March 7, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    I was struck by your line: “And I have had equally frustrating conversations with natural scientists (particularly physicists) who insist that there must be a simple equation that describes human behavior. (There is not.)”

    Neoclassical economists have ‘subjective utility’ functions which are the simplest of equations –Uxy = f(x,y) with numerous ‘restrictions’ placed upon the functional forms– purported to describe ‘human behavior’. In fact, Neoclassical economists appear to be quite proud to be grouped among your physicists.

    I have always taken human behavior –in economics, particular behavior about how we provide for ourselves– to not be reducible to simple equations. Until economists realize that this is the case –as Augustin Cournot well-realized– they will continue to argue as if this or that equation captures our behavior and that if only we behaved like the equations do we would live in the best of all possible worlds. There is absolutely no evidence to support any part of the Theory of the Consumer in Economics: especially demand curves based on ‘offer’ curves theorized by setting MUx/MUy = px/py.

  2. March 7, 2021 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks for this very constructive contribution, providing leads on fundamental questions.

    A change from the dead-horse-beating that comprises so many posts here that I often teeter on quitting the blog.

    • March 8, 2021 at 6:40 pm

      Blair Fix talks about the possibility to replace neoclassical economics. Like Geoff Davies, I welcome this constructive orientation. The question would be what will replace it. To take into account biophysical understanding is imperative, but I want to point out that there are two different levels in the economy: that of economic structure and processes and that of physical or material flows.

      The following is my second comment on John Foster’s “Essay for Comment” on February 21, 2021 as a part of his project
      Economic evolution in complex economic systems

      In the first comment I agreed with John Foster in that the economy must be grasped as a dissipative structure. However, the economy, which is itself a dissipative structure, is imbedded in biophysical dissipative structure. As an economics, I believe that the study of economic structure must take certain priority over the study of biophysical structure.

      A short addendum:
      When we argue dissipative structure, I feel we should distinguish two layers:
      (1) physical or material flows,
      and
      (2) economic flows.

      Evidently, all economic dissipative structure (2) must satisfy physical laws as material flows such as entropy law, conservation law of mass and energy, conservation of each elements (as long as there is no nuclear fission or fusion). However, economic flows have their own law of determination such as profitability, actually known production techniques, quantity adjustment conventions. Both are important, but as evolutionary economics we must study (2) rather than (1).

  3. Ikonoclast
    March 8, 2021 at 1:20 am

    I must read Lewis Mumford’s “The Myth of the Machine Vols 1 & 2”. This is something I have been promising myself for some time that I would do. After that, I will feel ready to read “The Economic Superorganism”. Without making too much of the analogical and metonymic thinking involved, I do think there appears to be an interesting progression from viewing society as a machine to viewing society as an organism. If that moves us away from simple mechanistic and reductionist thinking then it is generally a good thing. However, I don’t think that the machine / organism dichotomy is all that useful anymore, especially if it is insisted upon too strongly. After all, it is now clear that biological organisms are machines, albeit complex, organic machines, where “organic” means based on certain kinds of carbon-based molecules interacting in certain ways.

    Rather than making value judgements about whether a complex system is a “machine” or an “organism” (or neither) we should simply focus, in my opinion, on the issues of resource use, production or growth, replication, including self-replication and finally energy use, information (especially as codes and algorithms for production or replication) and entropy. At the level of physicalist, complex systems thinking these are the empirical fundamentals we can deal with consistently across system categories otherwise termed “machine” or “organism”.

    Of course, this approach too can be termed “reductionist” to a degree, although complex systems thinking in general is not as reductionist as pure, mechanical physics. Nevertheless, the approach of insisting upon the interconnection and interdependence of complex systems, be they “non-living” or “living”, via the shared forces and processes identified by the hard sciences, is a necessary antidote to thinking which too easily extends from analogy and metonym into outright mystification. I use the Marxist conception of “mystification” here. If I may quote a lowbrow source:

    “Mystification is the process of consciously making objects mysterious out of (beyond) the domain of (science and) reason. Mystification is the application of vague abstractions to build sophisticated metaphysical schemes, which sidetrack people from tangible material reality. According to Karl Marx, the term “material reality” means not only biological or physical existence but social and economic relationship.” – acasestudy dot com.

    Capitalist political economy and the Cartesian dualist conceptions it relies upon, are too quick to imply that humans are special and capitalist economics is special. By “special” I mean that there is always a strong implication and presumption that humans and the marvelous capitalist economics they have developed, can and do somehow escape natural limits and operate in manners where they are not bound by the known and well-tested fundamental laws of nature, like the laws of thermodynamics, which observably are highly consistent and universally applicable in our time and place milieu in the cosmos.

    The above is my first comment. I hope to comment again on how Hume and Darwin essentially have provided us with a combined philosophical and empirical truth warrant that induction can be a valid and reliable process for making testable knowledge claims (knowing to a reasonable, practicable or given degree of certainty.) Of course, the testing still needs to take place when science is involved. But “native” and schooled induction can be, and at times is, valid in everyday mental, practical and pragmatic tasks and actions.

  4. March 8, 2021 at 10:10 am

    This is all so close to what I’ve been saying for years that I need to differentiate myself from it.

    “The philosopher David Hume famously argued that there are no purely logical grounds for using inductive reasoning. Nonetheless, it is how most scientists think”. [Blair Fix]

    This is true, but misses the point. Hume said there are no purely logical grounds for using inductive reasoning by denying the reality of God grounding the logical process. He then inconsistently proposed an inductive measure of truth – the majority opinion of scientists – without any means apart from appearances of relating truth to reality. Hence economists agreeing without any justification on their own opinion that they are scientists!

    “According to Karl Marx, the term “material reality” means not only biological or physical existence but social and economic relationship.” [Ikonoclast]

    Marx too has failed to distinguish the reality of words from physical reality. Of course words have physical reality but that is neither the generic nor specific purpose of them, which is to convey purposeful information.

    “To move beyond the competing narratives about energy and the economy, King suggests we adopt a new narrative — ‘the economy as a superorganism’. I have mixed feelings about this metaphor”. [Blair Fix]

    I share Blair’s mixed feelings. This is just another version of the Nazi ‘superman’ craze which followed Herbert Spencer’s interpretation of Darwin’s explanation of evolution as “survival of the fittest” rather than the well-adapted (as in Bacon’s “Advancement of Learning” or Newman’s “Development of Doctrine”, adapting as new facts are uncovered).

    We have been discussing expanding, automorphic and chaotic functions recently, in particular the arabic number format as a model of the Big Bang, the four fixed points of Fourier analysis of electromagnetic radiation and the fourth power (of 0-3) in the fractal formula (which first bifurcates then descends into chaos). The fact that an arabic number has grown into the millions does not change the fact that the ones which make it up continue to exist. Likewise the 0-3 number scale of the automorphic functions. If it was meaningful at the time of the Big Bang, it still is (and can be shown to be) still meaningful now, as energy has morphed into physically localised matter and relationally localised messages. Organisms began with free molecules narrowing their freedom by developing and exercising capabilities. These developed into freedom to take root where their food was, then into mobile animals able to look for their food, and finally into humans able – by building models in language – to think ahead to where food might be found. But now they have reached one of King’s “major transitions” – what I refer to contra Darwin as the evolution of a new genus, or in the arabic number format of a new type of unit. The models are not the reality and (as King well says) can become fictional: NOT automorphisms. “Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that successful belief systems are often “massively fictional in their portrayal of the world”.

    It has by now become well established that the human brain has four subsystems (feeling, sensing, remembering and indexing with words), but that these interact with the four types of organism and the material world generally. Let us remember that in-breeding leads not only to pedigrees but also to insanity. Having those most fluent with language dominating schooling and commerce has bred generations of Humean democrats incapable of adapting to our changing environment and insanely trying to adapt the physical circumstances to fictional models. (Cf. G K Chesterton’s “The Outline of Sanity”, about our need to live closer to nature).

  5. Gerald Holtham
    March 10, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    I don’t think most scientists do believe in induction. Consciously or otherwise they have mostly absorbed Popper. They know scientific laws can be falsified (in principle) but not proven and therefore have the status of retained hypotheses which one day may have to be generalized or changed. Hume held that induction was a psychological not a logical process and Popper recognized that he was right and tidied up the logic.
    The dominance of neo-classical economics is not assured. In practice most economists facing a real-world task will not suppose they can simply apply neo-classical results. They will follow the method as far as they can and then apply all sorts of ad hoc fixes and adaptations – as any engineer does when dealing with an imperfectly understood system. Non-economists tend to overestimate the coherence and power of the orthodoxy. In fact the subject is pretty eclectic. The sad thing is how little this is reflected in text books which have tended to get more stupid rather than less.
    Blair Fix is right to pick on production functions. Apart from the usual aggregation problems, these suffer from a very strong assumption of separability: that the physical description of a process from inputs to outputs via the use of energy is separate from the economic description of the same process, which proceeds from paid-for inputs to the outputs aggregated by price. That separability is a strong assumption and led attention away from non-valuable output like carbon emissions and pollution generally. Now that attention has to be turned to those things, the use of traditional production functions will diminish – one hopes sharply.

  6. March 10, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    Thank you, Gerald, for reminding me an important point that I was missing in my first reading. As for production functions, please read also my comments:

    A short comment (Re point 2) and a longer comment (the third paragraph, the rest explains how the concept of “production function” distorts many important messages of economics).

    The second tells there is already economics of production that does not use “production function” concept. So, there is no need to add ad hoc fixes and adaptations for it including separability assumption. We can simply discard it.

  7. A.J. Sutter
    March 17, 2021 at 5:52 am

    I haven’t yet read King’s book, so I appreciate this shout-out about it. However, assuming the narrative framework in the figure is accurate, it should be pointed out that this the same technocratic point of view that dominates in Anglophone scholarship. It’s quite narrow.

    There are many other reasons to question economic growth, including ones based on social well-being, social justice, environmental ethics, etc. These have been explored for many years in the Francophone literature on degrowth/décroissance and also more recently by what might be called the Barcelona school of degrowth (though this might unfairly omit others in Germany and elsewhere in the younger generation of degrowth acitivists).

    An example of the limitations of technocratic thinking is the idea that neoclassical economics is “winning” because of some sort of “evolutionary” process. Such an exotic explanation is entirely unnecessary: how about it’s dominant because of some sort of political effect? As J.K. Galbraith père often pointed out, economics refuses to acknowledge the existence of power. This often leads even heterodox economic thinking astray.

    • A.J. Sutter
      March 17, 2021 at 5:54 am

      Sorry for my poor HTML skills: that should have been

      political effect? As J.K. Galbraith père often pointed out, economics refuses to acknowledge the existence of power. This often leads even heterodox economic thinking astray.

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