Tag: Ecology

The Four Laws of Ecology: The Clearest Explanation of What Ecology Really Means

Ecology is the study of relationships and processes linking living things to the physical and chemical environment. Exciting, right?

In the 1971 book The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner gives us a clear and understandable example of what ecology really means, while being one of the first to sound the alarm on the impending environmental crisis. (Although Rachel Caron's Silent Spring certainly holds the mantle for implanting ecological thought into the popular consciousness.)

Commoner's life was devoted to helping people see the benefits of ecological thinking:

Ecology has not yet explicitly developed the kind of cohesive, simplifying generalizations exemplified by, say, the laws of physics. Nevertheless there are a number of generalizations that are already evident in what we now know about the ecosphere and that can be organized into a kind of informal set of laws of ecology.

He goes on to lay out four basic and inescapable laws of ecology (which nicely complement Garett Hardin's Three Filters). The principles describe a beautiful web of life on earth.

The Four Laws of Ecology

The First Law of Ecology: Everything Is Connected to Everything Else

It reflects the existence of the elaborate network of interconnections in the ecosphere: among different living organisms, and between populations, species, and individual organisms and their physicochemical surroundings.

The single fact that an ecosystem consists of multiple interconnected parts, which act on one another, has some surprising consequences. Our ability to picture the behavior of such systems has been helped considerably by the development, even more recent than ecology, of the science of cybernetics. We owe the basic concept, and the word itself, to the inventive mind of the late Norbert Wiener.

The word “cybernetics” derives from the Greek word for helmsman; it is concerned with cycles of events that steer, or govern, the behavior of a system. The helmsman is part of a system that also includes the compass, the rudder, and the ship, If the ship veers off the chosen compass course, the change shows up in the movement of the compass needle. Observed and interpreted by the helmsman this event determines a subsequent one: the helmsman turns the rudder, which swings the ship back to its original course. When this happens, the compass needle returns to its original, on-course position and the cycle is complete. If the helmsman turns the rudder too far in response to a small deflection of the compass needle, the excess swing of the ship shows up in the compass—which signals the helmsman to correct his overreaction by an opposite movement. Thus the operation of this cycle stabilizes the course of the ship.

In quite a similar way, stabilizing cybernetic relations are built into an ecological cycle. Consider, for example, the fresh water ecological cycle: fish-organic waste-bacteria of decay inorganic products—algae—fish. Suppose that due to unusually warm summer weather there is a rapid growth of algae. This depletes the supply of inorganic nutrients so that two sectors of the cycle, algae and nutrients, are out of balance, but in opposite directions. The operation of the ecological cycle, like that of the ship, soon brings the situation back into balance. For the excess in algae increases the ease with which fish can feed on them; this reduces the algae population, increases fish waste production, and eventually leads to an increased level of nutrients when the waste decays. Thus, the levels of algae and nutrients tend to return to their original balanced position.

In such cybernetic systems the course is not maintained by rigid control, but flexibility. Thus the ship does not move unwaveringly on its path, but actually follows it in a wavelike motion that swings equally to both sides of the true course. The frequency of these swings depends on the relative speeds of the various steps in the cycle, such as the rate at which ships responds to the rudder.

Ecological systems exhibit similar cycles, although these are often obscured by the effects of daily or seasonal variations in weather and environmental agents.


The dynamic behavior of a cybernetic system—for example, the frequency of its natural oscillations, the speed with which it responds to external changes, and its overall rate of operation, depends on the relative rates of its constituent steps. In the ship system, the compass needle swings in fractions of a second; the helmsman's reaction takes some seconds; the ship responds over a time of minutes. These different reaction times interact to produce, for example, the ship's characteristic oscillation frequency around its true course.


Ecosystems differ considerably in their rate characteristics and therefore vary a great deal in the speed with which they react to changed situations or approach the point of collapse.


The amount of stress which an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is also a result of its various interconnections and their relative speeds of response. The more complex the ecosystem, the more successfully it can resist a stress. … Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections. Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole. Environmental pollution is often a sign that ecological links have been cut and that the ecosystem has been artificially simplified and made more vulnerable to stress and to final collapse.

The feedback characteristics of ecosystems result in amplification and intensification processes of considerable magnitude. For example, the fact that in food chains small organisms are eaten by bigger ones and the latter by still bigger ones inevitably results in the concentration of certain environmental constituents in the bodies of the largest organisms at the top of the food chain. Smaller organisms always exhibit much higher metabolic rates than larger ones, so that the amount of their food which is oxidized relative to the amount incorporated into the body of the organism is thereby greater. Consequently, an animal at the top of the food chain depends on the consumption of an enormously greater mass of the bodies of organisms lower down in the food chain. Therefore, any non-metabolized material present in the lower organisms of this chain will become concentrated in the body of the top one. …

All this results from a simple fact about ecosystems—everything is connected to everything else: the system is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; those same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse; the complexity of the ecological network and its intrinsic rate of turnover determine how much it can be stressed, and for how long, without collapsing; the ecological network is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one network may have large, distant, long-delayed effects.

The Second Law of Ecology: Everything Must go Somewhere

This is, of course, simply a somewhat informal restatement of a basic law of physics—that matter is indestructible. Applied to ecology, the law emphasizes that in nature there is no such thing as “waste.” In every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is taken up by another as food. Animals release carbon dioxide as a respiratory waste; this is an essential nutrient for green plants. Plants excrete oxygen, which is used by animals. Animal organic wastes nourish the bacteria of decay. Their wastes, inorganic materials such as nitrate, phosphate, and carbon dioxide, become algal nutrients.

A persistent effort to answer the question “Where does it go?” can yield a surprising amount of valuable information about an ecosystem. Consider, for example, the fate of a household item which contains mercury—a substance with serious environmental effects that have just recently surfaced. A dry-cell battery containing mercury is purchased, used to the point of exhaustion, and then “thrown out.” But where does it really go? First it is placed in a container of rubbish; this is collected and taken to an incinerator. Here the mercury is heated; this produces mercury vapor which is emitted by the incinerator stack, and mercury vapor is toxic. Mercury vapor is carried by the wind, eventually brought to earth in rain or snow. Entering a mountain lake, let us say, the mercury condenses and sinks to the bottom. Here it is acted on by bacteria which convert it to methyl mercury. This is soluble and taken up by fish; since it is not metabolized, the mercury accumulates in the organs and flesh of the fish. The fish is caught and eaten by a man and the mercury becomes deposited in his organs, where it might be harmful. And so on.

This is an effective way to trace out an ecological path. It is also an excellent way to counteract the prevalent notion that something which is regarded as useless simply “goes away” when it is discarded. Nothing “goes away”; it is simply transferred from place to place, converted from one molecular form to another, acting on the life processes of any organism in which it becomes, for a time, lodged. One of the chief reasons for the present environmental crisis is that great amounts of materials have been extracted from the earth, converted into new forms, and discharged into the environment without taking into account that “everything has to go somewhere.” The result, too often, is the accumulation of harmful amounts of material in places where, in nature, they do not belong.

The Third Law of Ecology: Nature Knows Best

In my experience this principle is likely to encounter considerable resistance, for it appears to contradict a deeply held idea about the unique competence of human beings. One of the most pervasive features of modern technology is the notion that it is intended to “improve on nature”—to provide food, clothing, shelter, and means of communication and expression which are superior to those available to man in nature. Stated baldly, the third law of ecology holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system. This is a rather extreme claim; nevertheless I believe it has a good deal of merit if understood in a properly defined context.

I have found it useful to explain this principle by means of an analogy. Suppose you were to open the back of your watch, close your eyes, and poke a pencil into the exposed works. The almost certain result would be damage to the watch. Nevertheless, this result is not absolutely certain. There is some finite possibility that the watch was out of adjustment and that the random thrust of the pencil happened to make the precise change needed to improve it. However, this outcome is exceedingly improbable. The question at issue is: why? The answer is self-evident: there is a very considerable amount of what technologists now call “research and development” (or, more familiarly, “R & D”) behind the watch. This means that over the years numerous watchmakers, each taught by a predecessor, have tried out a huge variety of detailed arrangements of watch works, have discarded those that are not compatible with the over-all operation of the system and retained the better features. In effect, the watch mechanism, as it now exists, represents a very restricted selection, from among an enormous variety of possible arrangements of component parts, of a singular organization of the watch works. Any random change made in the watch is likely to fall into the very large class of inconsistent, or harmful, arrangements which have been tried out in past watch-making experience and discarded. One might say, as a law of watches, that “the watchmaker knows best,”

There is a close, and very meaningful, analogy in biological systems. It is possible to induce a certain range of random, inherited changes in a living thing by treating it with an agent, such as x-irradiation, that increases the frequency of mutations. Generally, exposure to x-rays increases the frequency of all mutations which have been observed, albeit very infrequently, in nature and can therefore be regarded as possible changes. What is significant, for our purpose, is the universal observation that when mutation frequency is enhanced by x-rays or other means, nearly all the mutations are harmful to the organisms and the great majority so damaging as to kill the organism before it is fully formed.

The Fourth Law of Ecology: There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

In my experience, this idea has proven so illuminating for environmental problems that I have borrowed it from its original source, economics. The “law” derives from a story that economists like to tell about an oil-rich potentate who decided that his new wealth needed the guidance of economic science. Accordingly he ordered his advisers, on pain of death, to produce a set of volumes containing all the wisdom of economics. When the tomes arrived, the potentate was impatient and again issued an order—to reduce all the knowledge of economics to a single volume. The story goes on in this vein, as such stories will, until the advisers are required, if they are to survive, to reduce the totality of economic science to a single sentence. This is the origin of the “free lunch” law.

In ecology, as in economics, the law is intended to warn that every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.

Lest you feel these are all scientific, Commoner ends by referring you to classic literature:

A great deal about the interplay of the physical features of the environment and the creatures that inhabit it can be learned from Moby Dick.”


Still Interested? Check these related posts out:

Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems — “The goal of these mental filters, then, is to understand reality by improving our ability to judge the statements of experts, promoters, and persuaders of all kinds.”

The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work — Why can't a mouse be the size of an elephant? Weclome to the effect of scale on values.

Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems

One of the best parts of Garrett Hardin‘s wonderful Filters Against Folly is when he explores the three filters that help us interpret reality. No matter how much we'd like it to, the world does not only operate in our circle of competence. Thus we must learn ways to distinguish reality in areas where we lack even so much as a map.

Hardin's genius reminds us of this quote by Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit.

Andy Benoit

Mental Tools

We need not be a genius in every area but we should understand the big ideas of most disciplines and try to avoid fooling ourselves. That's the core to the mental models approach. When you're not an expert in a field, often the best approach is one that avoids stupidity. There are few better ways of avoiding stupidity than understanding how the world works.

Hardin begins by outlining his goal: to understand reality and understand human nature as it really is, removing premature judgment from the analysis.

He appropriately quotes Spinoza, who laid out his principles for political science thusly:

That I might investigate the subject matter of this science with the same freedom of spirit we generally use in mathematics, I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and to this end I have looked upon passions such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.

The goal of these mental filters, then, is to understand reality by improving our ability to judge the statements of experts, promoters, and persuaders of all kinds. As the saying goes, we are all laymen in some field.

Hardin writes:

What follows is one man's attempt to show that there is more wisdom among the laity than is generally concluded, and that there are some rather simple methods of checking on the validity of the statements of experts.

Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems

Literate Filter

The first filter through which we must interpret reality, says Hardin, is the literate filter: What do the words really mean? The key to remember is that Language is action. Language is not just a way to communicate or interpret; language acts as a call to, or just as importantly, an inhibitor to action.

The first step is to try to understand what is really being said. What do the words and the labels actually mean? If a politician proposes a “Poverty Assistance Plan,” that sounds almost inarguably good, no? Many a pork-barrel program has passed based on such labels alone.

But when you examine the rhetoric, you must ask what those words are trying to do: Promote understanding, or inhibit it? If the program had a rational method of assistance to the deserving poor, the label might be appropriate. If it was simply a way to reward undeserving people in his or her district for their vote, the label might be simply a way to fool. The literate filter asks if we understand the true intent behind the words.

In a chapter called “The Sins of the Literate,” Hardin discusses the misuse of language by examining literate, but innumerate, concepts like “indefinite” or “infinite”:

He who introduces the words “infinity” or any of its derivatives (“forever” or “never” for instance) is also trying to escape discussion. Unfortunately he does not honestly admit the operational meaning of the high-flown language used to close off discussion. “Non-negotiable” is a dated term, no longer in common use, but “infinity” endures forever.

Like old man Proteus of Greek mythology, the wish to escape debate disguises itself under a multitude of verbal forms: infinity, non-negotiable, never, forever, irresistible, immovable, indubitable, and the recent variant “not meaningfully finite.” All these words have the effect of moving discussion out of the numerate realm, where it belongs, and into a wasteland of pure literacy, where counting and measuring are repudiated.

Later, in the final chapter, Hardin repeats:

The talent for handling words is called “eloquence.” Talent is always desirable, but the talent may have an unfair, even dangerous, advantage over those with less talent. More than a century ago Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The curse of this country is eloquent men.” The curse can be minimized by using words themselves to point out the danger of words. One of their functions is to act as inhibitors of thought. People need to be made allergic to such thought-stoppers as infinity, sacred, and absolute. The real world is a world of quantified entities: “infinity” and its like are no words for quantities but utterances used to divert attention from quantities and limits.

It is not just innumerate exaggeration we are guarding against, but the literate tendency to replace actors with abstractions, as Hardin calls it. He uses the example of donating money to a poor country (Country X), which on its face sounds noble:

Country X, which is an abstraction, cannot act. Those who act in its name are rich and powerful people. Human nature being what it is, we can be sure that these people will not voluntarily do anything to diminish either their power or their riches…

Not uncommonly, the major part of large quantities of food sent in haste to a poor country in the tropics rot on the docks or is eaten up by rats before it can be moved to the people who need it. The wastage is seldom adequately reported back to the sending country…(remember), those who gain personally from the shipping of food to poor nations gain whether fungi, rats, or people eat the food.

The Numerate Filter

Hardin is clear on his approach to numerical fluency: The ability to count, weigh, and compare values in a general or specific way is essential to understanding the claims of experts or assessing any problem rationally:

The numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the wold. Given effective education–a rare commodity, of course–a numerate orientation is probably within the reach of most people.

Just as “literacy” is used here to mean more than merely reading and writing, so also will “numeracy” be used to mean more than measuring and counting. Examination of the origins of the sciences shows that many major discoveries were made with very little measuring and counting. The attitude science requires of its practitioners is respect, bordering on reverence, for ration, proportions, and rates of change.

Rough and ready back-of-the-envelope calculations are often sufficient to reveal the outline of a new and important scientific discovery….In truth, the essence of many of the major insights of science can be grasped with no more than child's ability to measure, count, and calculate.


To explain the use of the literate and numerate filters together, Hardin uses the example of the Delaney Amendment, passed in 1958 to restrict food additives. This example should be familiar to us today:

Concerned with the growing evidence that many otherwise useful substances can cause cancer, Congress degreed that henceforth, whenever a chemical at any concentration was found to cause cancer–in any fraction of any species of animal–that substance must be totally banned as an additive to human food.

From a literate standpoint, this sounds logical. The Amendment sought to eradicate harmful food additives that the free market had allowed to surface. However, says Hardin:

The Delaney Amendment is a monument to innumerate thought. “Safe” and “unsafe” are literate distinctions; nature is numerate. Everything is dangerous at some level. Even molecular oxygen, essential to human life, becomes lethal as the concentration approaches 100 percent.

Sensitivity is ordinarily expressed as “1 part per X,” where X is a large number. If a substance probably increases the incidence of cancer at a concentration of 1 part per 10,000, one should probably ban it at that concentration in food, and perhaps at 1 in 100,000. But what about 1 part per million?…In theory there is no final limit to sensitivity. What about 1 milligram per tank car? Or 1 milligram per terrestrial globe?

Obviously, some numerical limits must be applied. This is the usefulness of the numerate filter. As Charlie Munger says, “Quantify, always quantify.”


Hardin introduces his final filter by requiring that we ask the question “And then what?”  There is perhaps no better question to prompt second-order thinking.

Even if we understand what is truly being said and have quantified the effects of a proposed policy or solution, it is imperative that we consider the second layer of effects or beyond. Hardin recognizes that this opens the door for potentially unlimited paralysis (the poorly understood and innumerate “Butterfly Effect”), which he boxes in by introducing his own version of the First Law of Ecology:

We can never merely do one thing.

This is to say, all proposed solutions and interventions will have a multitude of effects, and we must try our best to consider them in their totality.

In proposing this filter, Hardin is very careful to guard against the Slippery Slope argument, or the idea that one step in the wrong direction will lead us directly to Hell. This, he says, is a purely literate but wholly innumerate approach to thinking.

Those who take the wedge (Slippery Slope) argument with the utmost seriousness act as though they think human beings are completely devoid of practical judgment. Countless examples from everyday life show the pessimists are wrong…If we took the wedge argument seriously, we would pass a law forbidding all vehicles to travel at any speed greater than zero. That would be an easy way out of the moral problem. But we pass no such law.

In reality, the ecolate filter helps us understand the layers of unintended consequences. Take inflation:

The consequences of hyperinflation beautifully illustrate the meaning of the First Law of Ecology. A government that is unwilling or unable to stop the escalation of inflation does more than merely change the price of things; it turns loose a cascade of consequences the effects of which reach far into the future.

Prudent citizens who have saved their money in bank accounts and government bonds are ruined. In times of inflation people spend wildly with little care for value, because the choice and price of an object are less important than that one put his money into material things. Fatalism takes over as society sinks down into a culture of poverty….

To Conclude

In the end, the filters must be used wisely together. They are ways to understand reality, and cannot be divorced from one another. Hardin's general approach to thinking sums up much like his multi-disciplinary friend Munger's:

No single filter is sufficient for reaching a reliable decision, so invidious comparisons between the three is not called for. The well-educated person uses all of them.

Check out our prior posts about Filters Against Folly:

The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work

Scale in Social Science

The Math Behind Scale

In one of the more remarkable chapters of a remarkable book, Filters Against Folly, author Garrett Hardin discusses the effect of scale on values.

He opens with an interplay of biology and mathematics to answer a simple question: Why couldn't a mouse be the size of an elephant?

The weight of an animal goes up as the cube of its linear dimensions, whereas the strength of its supporting limbs goes up only as the square…

Suppose we compare two identically shaped animals. Animal A is 3 units long (never mind what the units are), while animal B is 6 units long. How do their weights compare?

Weight of A = 3 cubed = 3 x 3 x 3 = 27

Weight of B = 6 cubed = 6 x 6 x 6 = 216

We can see that 216 is 8 times as great as 27; though animal B is only 2 times as long as animal A, it is 8 times as heavy. (Note that 2 cubed is 8.) As for the strengths of their legs:

Strength in A = 3 squared = 3 x 3 = 9

Strength in B = 6 squared = 6 x 6 = 36

So B's legs can bear only 4 times as much weight as A's legs. But B is 8 times as heavy, so B's legs are only half as strong as they need to be (4 divided by 8)…If the material of which the legs are composed is the same, then the cross-sectional area of the leg has to be doubled. The leg has to be thicker.

Hardin concludes:

If mice evolved to be as big as elephants, their silhouette would be that of elephants…thus does simple mathematics prove the point that a mouse cannot be as big as an elephant.

The point isn't that hard to grasp with some basic numerical fluency; physical law dictates that scale matters in all things.

Hardin wisely points out that once we've done the computation once, all that we really need to hang in our brain is the basic idea. We don't need to re-run the numbers every time we think of the scale effect in order to recall the point.

This reminds us of Charlie Munger's thought on statistics and practical usage:

But I know what a Gaussian or normal distribution looks like and I know that events and huge aspects of reality end up distributed that way. So I can do a rough calculation…but if you ask me to work out something involving a Gaussian distribution to ten decimal points, I can't sit down and do the math. I'm like a poker player who's learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal.

We need to be numerate, but frequently, the precise calculation is not necessary. In many large areas of life, only knowing the rough calculation is plenty good enough.

Scale in Social Science

From there, Hardin goes on to point out that while physical science integrated scale long ago, social science has been quick to ignore its dictates.

What works at a small scale (say, a Utopian community), loses its effectiveness as it scales. Everything has a breakpoint.

The reason communism or utopianism can work at small scale is because of the tight knit nature of a small group. Think of your family dinner table: Do you need to trade chits to decide who gets to eat how much, or do you need some grand overseer to dole out the potatoes? No. You all simply take what you need for the meal, and make sure everyone has enough. Think of the shameful admonitions if you over-eat and leave another family member hungry.

The problem is that the concept doesn't scale. Let's run an example.

‘Lost' as an Economics Lesson

Four people in a small boat land on a deserted island, and decide to split the labor and duties needed to survive. Bill does the hunting, Mary builds the shelter, Steve cleans the clothes, and Susan takes care of the fire. They all share in each other's labors: Mary gets to eat what Bill killed and Bill gets to sleep in the shelter built by Mary. By and large, this is a workable system. To each according to his need, from each according to his ability – a concept we recognize as Marxism.

If Bill does not go hunting one afternoon, all four of them go hungry. Not only that, but Mary, Susan and Steve won't be happy about that outcome. The hunger and shame placed on Bill will, generally, get him back on task the following day. And what if Susan decides to eat more than her fair share one night? The other three would not look kindly upon that, and Susan is likely to have to pull back on her eating.

There is no need for a management consultant to use motivational tactics to push Bill or punish Susan – the community works fine without it. And the four of them don't need to use any sophisticated methods of trade either: Bill doesn't need to sell his food to Susan in exchange for a night beside the fire. Such a system would be extremely inefficient among four people bound by tragedy and circumstance. And so the islanders live in relative peace.

After a few months, a cruise liner crashes nearby and four hundred people swarm on to the island. The original four, remembering how well their system worked, start assigning tasks: 40 people on hunting duty, 30 people tending to 8 different fires, 10 people on laundry crew, and so on. Assuming things will be the same, they set up the same “shared economy” system – take what you need, give what you can. We're all good folk here.

Within a few weeks, the islanders notice that food is short and the clothes are taking weeks to get cleaned. One by one, the new cruise-liner folks are not holding their own, and they aren't following the rules. The logic of the cheater is simple: If we've got enough food for 400, what's the problem if I take a little extra? I'm really hungry today, and tomorrow I'll eat a little less. Besides, Steve could stand to lose a few pounds and I'm malnourished. My need is greater. (Steve might not agree.)

Seeing one bad apple take more food than he or she deserves, the other islanders get a little jealous. If he's going to take extra, why shouldn't I? It's only fair, after all. In no time, in-fighting begins and the island begins to schism.

The islanders decided to solve the problem with organization and oversight. The original four islanders form a Board of Overseers, doling out the food and the work duties with strong oversight and punishment as needed. As time goes on, the laundry folks decide they are working a lot harder than anyone else, and decide they won't clean another pair of underwear for free. They being to trade their services for an equivalent amount of food, shelter, and fire. In turn, the hunters, the fire-builders, and the architects follow their lead.

What Happened?

By necessity, a utopian communist system is replaced by a combination of socialism and market-based capitalism. The problem is that the system of communist distribution which worked for a tight-knit group of 4 people did not scale to 400. Each person, less visible to the group and less caring about others they rarely interacted with, decided in turn to cheat the system just a bit, and only when “needed.” Their cheating had a small individual effect initially, so it went unnoticed. But the follow-on effect to individual cheating is group cheating, and the utopian goal of To each according to his need, from each according to his ability had the effect of expanding everyone's needs and shrinking their ability, aided by envy and reciprocation effects. Human nature at work.

The problem with ignoring scale in social science, in Hardin's view, is that it doesn't work.

In an uncrowded world like the one our ancestors enjoyed in Pioneer America, a communistic arrangement may be satisfactory. Fruit taken from common-property trees present in excess, or game animals harvested from vast wild herds, do not demonstrably diminish the resources available next year. Communizing a cost of zero hurts no one. Similarly, wastes may be thrown away into vast areas without harming other people, so long as the metabolic powers of uncrowded nature are more than sufficient to recycle the elements.

But the poltico-economic system that works well on the frontier breaks down miserably in a world as crowded as ours. Unfortunately, long after the reality has vanished, the dream of an uncrowded world endures, often romantically glorified.

In a trivially abstract sense, would-be modern cowboys may have a good idea, but the scale is wrong. The judgment of “good” must be tied to scale

Check out Filters Against Folly for more brilliance.

Books Everyone Should Read on Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Psychology and Behavioral Economics Books

Earlier this year, a prominent friend of mine was tasked with coming up with a list of behavioral economics book recommendations for the military leaders of a G7 country and I was on the limited email list asking for input.


While I read a lot and I’ve offered up books to sports teams and fortune 100 management teams, I’ve never contributed to something as broad as educating a nation's military leaders. While I have a huge behavorial economics reading list, this wasn't where I started.

Not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to choose books that these military leaders wouldn’t normally have come across in everyday life. Books they were unlikely to have read. Books that offered perspective.

Given that I couldn’t talk to them outright, I was really trying to answer the question ‘what would I like to communicate to military leaders through non-fiction books?’ There were no easy answers.

I needed to offer something timeless. Not so outside the box that they wouldn't approach it, and not so hard to find that those purchasing the books would give up and move on to the next one on the list. And it can't be so big they get intimidated by the commitment to read. On top of that, you need a book that starts strong because, in my experience of dealing with C-level executives, they stop paying attention after about 20 pages if it’s not relevant or challenging them in the right way.

In short there is no one-size-fits-all but to make the biggest impact you have to consider all of these factors.

While the justifications for why people chose the books below are confidential, I can tell you what books were on the final email that I saw. I left one book off the list, which I thought was a little too controversial to post.

These books have nothing to do with military per se, rather they deal with enduring concepts like ecology, intuition, game theory, strategy, biology, second order thinking, and behavioral psychology. In short these books would benefit most people who want to improve their ability to think, which is why I’m sharing them with you.

If you’re so inclined you can try to guess which ones I recommended in the comments. Read wisely.

In no order and with no attribution:

  1. Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  4. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
  9. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates
  10. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
  11. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
  12. Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  13. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H. Frank
  14. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don't by Nate Silver
  15. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
  16. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  17. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate
  18. Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin
  19. Games of Strategy (Fourth Edition) by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath & David H. Reiley, Jr.
  20. The Theory of Political Coalitions by William H. Riker
  21. The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations (PDF) by John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.
  22. Fight the Power: Lanchester’s Laws of Combat in Human Evolution by Dominic D.P. Johnson & Niall J. MacKay.

What Facts Do We Know About Food?

A summary of a recent talk by Michael Pollan about what we know about food.

We are ignoring the elephant in the room when we only talk nutrients — this way of eating is killing us.

For example by demonising fat in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we ended up with margarine and a whole lot of low fat processed goods on the supermarket shelves (which are still there, by the way). It gave a ‘free pass’ to eat and drink as much as you want because it was low fat.

But instead we became fat.

It’s really hard to study food – it’s extremely complex. It’s not like studying pharmaceuticals. “There’s no placebo for broccoli.” Many food studies rely on surveying people (epidemiological surveillance type studies). There are no tight controls and it’s easy for people to forget what they eat or even lie on the survey. So the data has problems.

Nutritional ‘science’ is a young science “it’s where surgery was in the 1650s.”

So what facts do we know about food?

  • Every time we remove a nutrient — so that we can just consume the nutrient — it doesn’t work like it should, as it does in the whole food.
  • Populations that eat a Western diet (that is, processed foods) have a high prevalence of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. (These are diseases of the West.)
  • Populations that eat traditional diets, rarely get chronic diseases.
  • People who get off the Western diet revert the markers of chronic diseases — which means they get better or totally heal themselves.

In the next 10 years, 1 in 3 kids will develop type 2 diabetes — unless we change the way we eat.

The best way to take control of our food — away from corporations — is to cook at home.


Still curious? If you haven’t read Pollan's books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you're missing out on a lot of wisdom.


Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss

The HR department's long run on gut instincts may be coming to a close.

Recently, Google applied their engineering (data-driven) mindset to building better bosses and the counter-intuitive findings suggest that promoting the best technical person is a bad idea.

Not content to just learn what makes a good boss, Google is using this information to make bad bosses better: “We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers.”

But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

They've even published a list of cognitive biases

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