Economic Evolution

Big history can help us understand many aspects of humanity.  When we analyze trends from a big historical perspective, we can better extrapolate the changes that we should expect in the future.  Nowhere is this more evident than with the research of economist Robin Hanson.  Hanson (1994; 1998; 2008a; 2008b) has conducted groundbreaking research in big history economics.  By analyzing the evolution of human economic systems he has revealed what our economic system may be like by the end of the century.

Like many aspects of human evolution, economic growth appears to follow exponential trends.  By analyzing large shifts in modes of production, Robin Hanson showed that there have been very clear economic doubling times that are connected to large-scale system transitions over time.  For example, some of the largest-scale transitions in the past have been from hunting to farming and from farming to industrial production.  Although there is obviously important overlap and transition times between these large-scale transitions, the economy as a whole appears to be dominated mainly by the newly emergent mode (i.e., farming over hunting; industrial production over farming).

However, the key finding from his research is that economic doubling time, in terms of overall human wealth, keeps shrinking.  During the hunting era (~2 million years ago to 10,000 thousand years ago) overall human wealth seems to have doubled over 224,000 thousand years.  This represents exceptionally slow growth, but it is still real measureable growth.  The average human band of Homo habilis would have been relatively impoverished in terms of nutrition, health, lifespan, etc. when compared to the average human band of Homo sapiens sapiens 10,000 years ago.

When humans entered an economic-era driven by farming (between 10,000 years ago to 250 years ago) this economic doubling time shrank exponentially to ~909 years.  However, during this time period economic growth was barely noticeable on the scale of a human life.  There was growth, but most people didn’t realize it.  Most intellectuals only became aware of economic growth after the main driver of economic growth transitioned from farming to industry.  Hanson’s analysis indicated that since the industrial revolution to the present day, economic growth doubles every 6.3 years, an exponential leap from the days when economic growth was driven by farming activities.

Furthermore, it is important to realize that because economic growth’s doubling time keeps becoming quicker, the large-scale economic transitions may also be changing more quickly as well.  Humans lived in a hunting-driven economic era for hundreds of thousands of years, a farming-dominated economic era for thousands of years, and a industrially-dominated economic era for two and a half centuries.  Could the mode of production changes themselves be changing more rapidly?

Hanson has suggested that they are, and based on these doubling times, we should expect another large-scale economic transition to occur soon… this century soon.  During the industrial era machines have becoming more and more competent at doing manual labour jobs that were previously done by humans.  At first machines were used to complement manual human labour, but eventually they replaced human labourers.  Many economists have realized that an analogous transition is happening right now.  However, it is happening faster and it is happening on a global scale.  Computers are being used for almost every conceivable line of work to enhance productivity and capability, however, they are also starting to replace us.  As computer-based technology continues to improve and transition from “narrow-AI” to “strong-AI” we should expect there to be a transition from an economy based on human intelligence to an economy based on machine intelligence.  In some sense, this is already happening.  However, in a few decades time it will become obvious that this transition is occurring in a large-scale transition sense analogous (and perhaps more transformational) than the transitions that have occurred in the past.

Hanson has predicted that this transition from a human intelligence to a machine intelligence driven economy will happen quite abruptly.  The diffusion times between past transitions happened at increasingly quick paces (i.e., the transition from hunting to farming diffused at a much slower pace than the transition from farming to industry).  It is entirely plausible that as the AI improves, the price to replace humans with AI will decrease.  This would follow Moore’s law-like computer cost development models that have been quite accurate for the past few decades.  Once human knowledge and intellectual abilities become copyable this transition should come as an explosion and build on itself globally.

How will this transition effect our lives?  Where will our place in this economy be?  I think that depends on the nature of the transition itself.  Will our own technology make us obsolete?  Or will we merge with it?  However, if big history is any indication, we are not in control of whether it happens or not.  It may be inevitable.


Hanson, R.  1994.  If uploads come first: the crack of a future dawn.  Extropy, 6.  http://hanson.gmu/uploads.html

Hanson, R.  1998.  Long-term growth as a sequence of exponential modes.

Hanson, R.  2008.  Economics of brain emulations.  In Healey, P. & Rayner, S. (eds.).  Unnatural Selection – The Challenges of Engineering Tomorrow’s People, p. 150-158. London: EarthScan.

Hanson, R.  2008.  Economics of the singularity.  IEEE Spectrum, 37-42.


About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: