The Many Things the Economy and Society Can Learn from Evolution

Collaboration, adaptive radiation, and occupying niches offer the potential to improve sustainability and fairness

Learn from evolution – and make economic and social processes more sustainable and fair. If we look back at how living systems have developed over time, we find a whole host of established underlying principles that can be transferred to society and the lives we lead today. Over the course of millions of years, nature has developed mechanisms that result in plentiful, diverse, stable, and yet still dynamic ecosystems. This raises a question: What can we learn from this? If he’s not concentrating on medical electronics, this is a question Professor Dr. Bernhard Wolf of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Medical Electronic and Lab on Chip Systems is thinking about when dealing with overall medical systems.


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One of the first insights we gain by looking back at evolutionary history is that it’s better to act collaboratively than to adopt a confrontational or competitive stance. Agreed, competition has always been an important aspect of evolution – but it didn’t take long for it to become obvious that it’s much better for protozoons (single-cell organisms) to form simple organisms with other protozoons, because it’s a better way to protect themselves from attacks.

As organisms became bigger, division of labor – i.e. even close collaboration – soon became necessary. Cells more exposed to the outside specialized in fending off the enemy and taking in nutrients, while those on the inside concentrated more on processing those nutrients and on reproduction.

A brief journey into the realms of wildlife

This principle of successful collaboration can be seen in modern times in insects and the way they form colonies. For example, bees and ants live in highly complex social structures in which work is delegated; they are even able to provide social support, by transporting an injured comrade back to base so it can be cared for. Fish form shoals and protect themselves from the mouths of marauding enemies by merging into tight swarms, at the center of which is a critical mass of individuals capable of reproduction. We also know from penguins that the prospect of individual birds surviving would be very bleak if the other members of their group did not shield them from the biting cold and enemies. As these examples show, cooperative behavior keeps populations stable and helps each respective species to safeguard the natural foundation of life.

Another key mechanism of evolution is adaptive radiation. This is where living beings can adapt themselves to the conditions of their environment by acquiring special capabilities and developing morphological attributes. This enables plants and animals to live in all kinds of conceivable places. No niche is left unoccupied. Occupying niches promotes creativity and diversity, offering an opportunity to the overall population to react quickly and adaptably to changes in the availability of food or other conditions. If a species or population lacks this ability to adapt, its fate can be quickly sealed. For example, the dinosaurs were possibly the most successful and powerful vertebrates of all times, but they were unable to adapt quickly enough to changes in their environment and find new places to feed themselves.

Collaboration and adaptive radiation in society and the economy

Are we also doomed by our modern systems of society and the economy? “The fact of the matter is, there are aggressive competitive structures in many areas of the world which are resulting in dire changes in society,” explains Steinbeis Entrepreneur Bernhard Wolf. The structures of liberal markets are doing everything within their power to grant the owners of private property maximum advantage. The rapid rate of technological development in recent decades has dovetailed with a rise in psychological and psychosomatic disorders. Some specialists are now pleading for a cooperative approach to competition. Civil societies could form cooperative alliances as part of voluntary arrangements to offer mutual services, suggests political scientist Johano Strasser. This would allow people to occupy relevant niches in keeping with the concept of adaptive radiation.

As the development of life on Earth has demonstrated, cooperative behavioral patterns in combination with the principle of adaptive radiation offer essential development potential in the long term compared to confrontational, aggressive behavior. But there is a further principle of evolution that is also crucial in all of this: You should not use more resources than you have access to. In the early days of human development, this concept was a given, but with the advent of industrialization and the emergence of transportation systems, an era of global resource exploitation began – even though day in, day out, the sun provides us with much more energy than we actually need. If we could use that energy, we could quickly restore the equilibrium between energy consumption and energy generation.

All in all, resorting to growth structures based on the examples provided to us by evolution could prevent defensive battles, wars, and economic migration, and avert severe social rifts – cooperation and adaptive radiation in order to avoid social and economic conflict. But to do this, we would have to manage our economic systems globally, based on methods that consider resources and sustainable practices. This is utopian and still a long way off from where we are now. But: Nature has always found new functional approaches and lifestyle patterns when coming up with life forms; it has continually developed new concepts and simply tried them out. “If we manage economic development by occupying niches, we could sidestep lots of problems from the outset and establish healthy, efficient, socially viable, and economically successful structures,” says Bernhard Wolf, combined with an appeal: “Let’s look up what Darwin said!”


Prof. Dr. rer. nat. habil. Bernhard Wolf (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center: Medical Electronic and Lab on Chip Systems (Munich)

Christian Scholze (author)
Steinbeis Transfer Center: Medical Electronic and Lab on Chip Systems (Munich)