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The Evolutionary Perspective of Wealth

While trying to understand the origins of the recent financial crisis, I took it upon myself to form a cogent definition of what "wealth" is. The website provides, among others, the following definition of wealth:  

"An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources; riches" .

However, I find this definition unsatisfactory, as it does not provide a clear criterion/criteria to discriminate between different "material possessions".  Since I am of the opinion that practically all human attributes and characteristics can be traced to the evolutionary  drive to maximize one's genetic transmission, I have formulated my own definition as follows:

"Wealth is the sum of hard resources (such as foodgrains, minerals, fuel etc), and soft resources (such as knowledge of engineering, medicine etc), which allow the owner(s) of said wealth to secure and maximize their genetic transmission ".

So the criterion that defines wealth is its ability to help its owners, whether individuals or society at large, to protect future generations from the vagaries of nature while enhancing their numbers and well-being. This definition seems consistent with the fundamental difference between wealthy and poor persons or societies; wealthy societies such as those of the west are characterized by low infant mortality, an abundance of nutrition, long life expectancies (indirectly corelated with better genetic transmission, although ill-judged contraception has clouded the picture) etc.


So far so basic. However, some surprising conclusions arise when applying the above definition to various aspects of modern society. Clear examples of wealth are our increasing knowledge of medicine, our ability to genetically engineer crops for instance, mobile telephony, the internet, better technologies for extracting minerals and oil from the earth, nuclear and renewable energy technologies etc.

Less glamorous, but nonetheless clearly "wealth"  are mundane services like sanitation, garbage disposal, transportation and logistics and many other services and goods.

What might be more intriguing and even astonishing, is the seemingly immense mass of occupations and professions that fail the above criterion. For instance, what good are the "gourmet" foods and "fine" wines industries? These do not provide any nutritional value, but nonetheless employ a mulitude or people. The same goes for the large "recreational" eating industry. While there are economies of scale to be had in industrial food manufacture (thereby freeing up labor), a large number of restaurants etc focus on providing transient pleasure, (not nutrition), but no bring absolutely no lasting benefit. I am left with no choice but to conclude that the most "talented" chef is worth less, in terms of wealth created, than an ordinary plumber or garbage disposal guy.

The fashion "industry" is even worse. What possible benefit (as defined in terms of genetic transmission) could be accruing from the activities of this kind of activity? While clothing has some usefulness in terms of hygeine and protection from the elements, the vast bulk of this industry is devoted, literally and actually, to form over substance, fulfilling shallow obsolete instincts, particularly among females. (Full Disclosure: I may have a bias against this profession because it is the cause of many sharp disagreements with my wife).

Once again, I see nothing but a huge misallocation of labor and other resources.

The same holds true with many other activities such as music, large sections of the media industry, many recent financial products and services etc. How much better off would society be if this realization was more universal and the energies of the entire labor force directed towards genuine wealth creation rather than pandering to anachronistic instincts?

While it is unrealistic to expect an abrupt and immediate reversal of this state of affairs, I hope you will ponder this point of view, dear reader, and if you find it logical, try to inform your social circle.




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