Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A question about Mars, economies, and sciences

Jonathan Catalan points to a recent Hugo Chavez musing that capitalism might have killed off the Martians. So here's a question... scientists and especially economists study the behavior of humans under conditions of scarcity. Entomologists study the behavior of bugs in their harsh environments. Herpetologists study the behavior of amphibians and reptiles. Primatologists study the behavior of primates, and how they react to the constraints of their environment.

If we make contact with an alien species on par with human beings in terms of their intellectual and social capacity, who will study their behavior under conditions of scarcity and constraint? Will the people who study them be considered biologists or social scientists? Who is better equipped to study them? What is really the dividing line between biologists who study animal behavior and social science, except the species under study?


  1. The dividing line is this.

    If we were to, say, eliminate much of the food source for a particular animal, it will die out.

    If we were to eliminate food source for a human being, food producers among humans would simply bid up the price for it. They will demand more favours or services to be given to them in return for giving up more food. This would force people to cooperate in the way they share food according who provides them with what service. And on top of that, the human producer would work more to produce more food.

    Basically, man, unlike other species, works on cooperation, not competition. If there is a compromising situation, many other species simply do not compromise. Alligators even eat their babies to survive.

    Now, if humans were bulls, they would lock horns and attack each other until the scant little grass is still available to them.

    The biologist looks at all other functions. For those trying to understand human life, they simply see that art of compromise.

  2. I don't think cooperation and competition are as easy to distinguish from each other as you suggest.

    But surely I'll stipulate that humans do a better job at responding to shocks than just about any other species out there. We also have more complicated mechanisms through which we respond.

    I agree social sciences are different in this sense - my point is only that they are the same on a fundamental level. If we were to come across lichen on Mars it would be easy to file that under "biology" and think nothing of it. If we were to find intelligent, complex life with advanced social systems we would probably file it under "social science". But this raises an interesting point - clearly there's nothing about our humanness that makes the social sciences different. Once you start adding more and more intelligent species that organize themselves like humans organize themselves, you'll start to realize that the distinction is only one of degree - one group studies relatively simple social structures, and one group studies relatively complicated social structures.


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