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Monkey Business: When economists talk of animals, and why we should do it more

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

By Harvey Nriapia, Chief Economics Correspondent

Economists are animals. We are doves and hawks in central banks, bulls and bears in financial markets, and sometimes, it feels like we spend entire days chasing our own tails.

But why do we use animal language? Because it gives us a shorthand to quickly understand other economists and what they believe without needing to ask very much at all. Humans are always looking for shortcuts, and animal behaviour is simplistic and predictable.

But what about when it’s not?

In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.” And for a long while, everyone agreed.

Yet that hasn’t stopped economists from expanding animal vocabulary to reach every corner of the field. Economics is a human phenomenon explored through an animal lens.

For a long while, no one thought that animals were capable of economic behaviour

In the early nineties, the four Asian economies that maintained high growth rates across the latter part of the twentieth century were christened the Asian Tigers—comprising Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, with the lattermost leading the pack. Much of their rapid GDP growth came about due to import restriction policy to boost exports and to stimulate the development of infant industries at home.

The term Lion Economies to describe emerging economies in Africa never caught on in the same way, in part because many of them lost their bite. But the term Tiger Cubs is recently being popularised to describe emerging markets in Southeast Asia. And in South America? They’re the Pacific Pumas. It’s a feline’s world, and we are richer for it.

The Asian Tigers experienced growth rates of more than 7% a year

And if the world economy is a big cat to tame, investing circles are an aviary. Investors are ostriches if they attempt to avoid negative financial information by burying their heads in the sand. Chickens panic when markets turn volatile. And Liz Truss ruffled a few foreign exchange market feathers when she ran on a hawkish campaign of “growth, growth, and growth.” She soon came to wear the British economy like an albatross around her neck.

But economists could learn a lot more from animals.

Animals make economic decisions. They consume, they exchange, and they exhibit sophisticated savings behaviour to smooth consumption over the bleak winter months.

That’s not all. Forget what Adam Smith said: animals do trade in markets, in ways that would undoubtedly make him blush. Male spiders will bring gifts wrapped in silk to female spiders in exchange for sex, sometimes a seed or an insect for example. And there is a premium—the more she likes the gift, the more time she gives him.

Elsewhere, in oceans around the tropics, one species of medium-sized fish clean the teeth of sharks. In return, the sharks refrain from eating them—a phenomenon economists might term reciprocity. These social norms aren’t rare; the animal kingdom is governed by them.

Strange Bedfellows: Remora fish live side by side with sharks even if sharks could quite easily eat them

Ants have second stomachs to store food for other ants in their colony who fall sick or become unable to forage for themselves—like a welfare state that provides unemployment benefits to those who cannot work.

And animals respond to incentives. Birds migrate to take advantage of resource abundance—namely, burgeoning insect populations—much like us. And migratory birds—if they nest in the wrong spot—can come into conflict with the home bird population, who become irritated when their resources are split between more mouths.

So maybe economists are animals—but animals are also economists. Here’s why that matters.

Human economic behaviour is changing the animal world, and animal behaviour is playing catch-up.

Birds in Europe are adapting their flying distances to road speed limits, male beetles are mistaking brown glass bottles for females, and chemical pollutants are affecting shoaling behaviour in fish. Yet the literature all but ignores animals except when they are a good to consume or to sell—and economists all but ignore animals except when they make for a snappy retort towards another economist.

When we discuss climate change, we talk lots about the consequences on people. But rarely do we talk about the consequences on animals. In fact, talk of animals goes massively under-reported.

Human behaviour is changing the animal world, and animal behaviour is playing catch-up

Many species of hawk and dove are close to extinction in Britain—the Bank of England soon being their only place of refuge. And it’s likely that the Asian Tigers will outlive the animal they are named after, given that there are only 4500 left in the wild.

So economists should talk more about animals—not in a finger-pointing, name-calling way—but because they are much more like us than we think. And most importantly, our worlds face the same threats. Because although we have traditionally thought of economics as a human phenomenon explored through an animal lens—it is also an animal phenomenon explored through a human one.

But until we realise that, economists, alas, will stay animals.


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