Monday, December 8, 2014

The Economics Of What If Everyone Who Could Ran Everywhere They Went All The Time

I confess to having read this tweet a fair number of times, attempting to parse the meaning. I like a good challenge, but I also like a bit of clarity. In cases where clarity is not immediately forthcoming, I face the dilemma of whether or not to take the high road. Here, I must judge which topic to choose from among the following:

  1. The use of clarifying punctuation when facing hard budget constraints (in this case, 140 characters).
  2. What are the economic implications of everyone running in lieu of walking, loping, sauntering, sashaying, or otherwise taking to pedestrian locomotion. The effects of this change are to take place in the world as-is.
  3. Replace all transportation with running. Again, the effects of this change are to take place in the world as-is.
  4. Describe the economics of a world in which all capable members of the species homo sapiens sapiens has and always has run everywhere they went all the time.
I believe interpretation (1) is both uncharitable and boring. Doubly so when notepad and screenshots are eminently available. Sure, it's possible Ozimek tweeted this from a mobile device, but to bump it again a year and a half later as-is suggests an interest in the actual topic rather than the meta-topic implied by the lack of colons and commas. Interpretation (2) leaves room for a very large portion of the modern economy, transportation, that would otherwise be completely ruined by interpretation (3). A forklift operator or train engineer spends much of the day sitting or standing. If those sitting- or standing-in-motion tasks had to be replace by flesh-and-blood humans running about, it's pretty obvious that almost all modern industry would collapse. I used to work at Home Depot, and I assure you that if a floor worker had to scurry up to the top shelf to get a barbecue down, OSHA administrators would be doing a lot more running than is healthy for a human.

Interpretation (4) provides a great little window into specialization and exchange, however. But to get there, we have to return to pre-history. and imagine life before even the rudiments of modern man appeared on the scene.

Prior to the advent of farming, ca. 12kya. humans were primarily foragers, collecting berries, nuts, fish, and very importantly, mollusks. Mollusks are intensely important to the development of early humans. Since they are either slow-moving or completely stationary, the ratio of energy expended to energy captured is minuscule. Obtaining high-protein, high-fat nutrition while casually wading around in tidal pools is a pretty good way to select against huge jaw muscles and long, sharp canine teeth. Big brains begin with the humble oyster. So in that setting, I want you to imagine for a moment four clans. 

Tidal Pool Savanna
Running Only
All Locomotion

Clans A and C run everywhere they go all the time. On the savanna, this means they run when they collect fresh water, they run when they head to the privy, they run when they escape from hyenas, and they run to chase antelopes. In the tidal pools, this means they run across potentially slippery rocks and over barnacles. In both clans, running everywhere all the time is likely to be a liability. On the savanna, hunting is made next to impossible, since stalking prey is the only way apart from dumb luck to obtain meat. A physical defect that reduces the maximum running speed of a human to that of a crouched stalk would possibly aid in hunting, but the dubious benefits of silent hunting would be outweighed by the individual's propensity to be eaten by lions. The most likely evolutionarily stable outcome would be for Clan C genes to select for predator avoidance and gathering prowess. Members most fit to breed would probably be long-limbed and slender, with excellent fine motor skills, perhaps something like the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, or maybe the extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only with small heads and muscular legs. Or maybe like kangaroos. 

Clan A, contrarily, would reward balance and surefootedness. Here, away from leopards, genetic modifications that hobbled individuals' ability run swiftly would lead to fewer slashed feet, fewer broken bones, and larger oyster harvests. Successful Clan A members would be stocky, stubby, and perhaps most closely resembling other great apes like mountain gorillas or orangutans in stance. Large, powerful hands with extra webbing would probably be more successful, since the ability to pry forage from rocks and carry it back while running full tilt requires both great strength and a good grip. 

Clans B and D, by their ability to modify their pace, are able to select for a general-purpose body, one not too different from the one you're inhabiting right now. You can slow down, pick your way along treacherous sea rocks, just as you're able to scramble up a tree to get away from a knot of snarling honey badgers. Clans B and D can intermarry, interbreed, and interweave no problem-o. 

But in an all-run world, given time sufficient for speciation, miscegenation is a real threat to offspring. A-C children would be too slow to escape predators among the acacia trees, and too clumsy and fast to navigate coastal slickrock at full pelt. It seems likely that strict rules would arise to prevent interbreeding. The important social question, and one that I confess is beyond my ability to forecast out-of-sample is under what conditions the gains to trade exceed the risk-adjusted downside of miscegenation between clans A and C. I can imagine that with enough tribal surplus, someone would eventually hit on the idea of creating special trade zones where either only men or only women would congregate to trade between clans, or something (note that because of evolutionary pressures, genocide is unlikely: Clan C cannot justify conquering Clan A since the land they would conquer would be effectively fallow permanently & vice-versa).

Assuming that durable trade could be established somehow, the next natural question is whether or not agriculture could arise in this setting. An important first step to animal husbandry is the domestication of canis familaris, the dog. Since it isn't perfectly clear how the dog was domesticated in the first place, it's difficult to project how either thin-limbed flatlander vegetarians or rumblebottom beachcomber dwarves might do the trick. At any rate, the marginal utility of a canine partnership is much lower for the A-C clans than for the B-D clans, thanks to diet specialization. Why even bother herding goats if all you eat is cactus nubs or whatever? As for scratch farming, I find the beer hypothesis pretty convincing. 

What's the beer hypothesis, you ask? Well, in the very same locations archaeologists find evidence of farming, they also find evidence of beermaking. Early farmers didn't grow grains to bake bread; they grew grains to get #drunj. Your oversalted late-Sunday-morning Bloody Mary hearkens back to the roots of humanity more than the bread you break over dinner that evening. Drunkenness is the cornerstone of civilization.

So picture that. First you'd have to run up and down the fields to prepare the soil, then you'd have to run up and down to sow, then you'd have to run up and down to harvest, and once your sour mash is good and fermented, you'd have to run around in a drunken stupor. Forgive me my Puritan sensibilities for a moment, but I suspect that this experiment would end at best as an aborted failure. You can only get away with drunken debauchery if you enjoy the luxury of staggering home to sleep it off afterwards. Drunk running is a recipe for ending up stuck between a rhino's toes. 

No beer means no agriculture. No agriculture means no industry. So it seems that the Clan C folks are doomed to perpetual foraging. How about our friends in Clan A? Would they ever invent beer? Here, it seems a little more likely. The trouble with these guys is that there isn't a lot of grain-arable land all that close to the coastline. Dogs might still be attracted to middens, and if they could bring back relatively fast-moving small game, they might be domesticated, eventually leading to penned sheep (somehow, even though the technical details of how to build an enclosure while running escape me). Grains are still a bit tough to predict. It's pretty easy to imagine that some sort of trade network would see that early grains and pulses made their way to coastlines and into the hands of Clanners A, and they would probably be better disposed to do the relatively slow-speed task of tilling, sowing, harvesting, and processing, but the whole drunkenness-near-water-and-slippery-rocks thing hints that the experiment wouldn't get that much farther than it would for Clan C. 

Now, if a few members of one of the clans had a predisposition for sobriety, and if the rest ended up weeded out through the inevitable mayhem of drunk running, it might be possible for agriculture to go "foom" and for one of the clans to dominate. As we see with homo floresiensis and other minor offshoots, early man had no trouble whatsoever with either outright genocide or just full-bore displacement. If that were to happen, the puzzle would then become what would the alt-prehistory look like with either homo kangaroosiensis or homo gimlisiensis ascendant. If this is the sort of question Ozimek is asking, I confess myself buffaloed. The technology we have now is completely contingent on our ancestors' natural propensity not merely to truck, barter, and exchange, but to modify personal locomotion to fit the particular circumstances of place and time. If you remove individuals' ability to stroll, saunter, trudge, march, meander, traipse, stalk, skip, sashay, tread, or sally at any pace other than pell-mell, there is absolutely no way to tell how individual incentives might change. There would probably be greater pressure to develop tech that would allow tasks to be completed from stationary positions, more investment into devices that convert running energy into useful work, and husbandry that focuses animals' efforts on slow-paced tasks rather than being bred for food. More donkeys, fewer sheep. 

Less clear is what would produce relative status. Clan A types would probably value a low center of gravity and good forearm strength. Clan C type would celebrate sprinters. Sports and warfare would likely reflect these things. It's possible that the rise of bourgeois dignity would never occur (though to be fair, it's entirely likely that it was a complete fluke as it actually turned out, by no means assured in the contours of history). Swolehate would almost certainly be a phenomenon found only among Clan A descendants. And I think that's actually the hidden question lurking in Ozimek's original challenge. Swolehate happens when you run around digging clams. It's just a fact of life. I hope this is a satisfactory first pass at a difficult analytical puzzle.

Summary: What If Everyone Who Could Ran Everywhere They Went All The Time is not euvoluntary when weighed against the alternative of What If Everyone Who Could Ran Everywhere They Went Only Some Of The Time.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?