Tracking Keynes through King’s: economics, genes and the possibilities for our grandchildren

William Hoffman
July 29, 2014

In an essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”  he published in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression, the  British economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that a century  of technological progress would bring both abundance and leisure.  For  the first time, he wrote, we will be faced with a permanent problem –  how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have  won for us, “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Keynes’s essay has resurfaced recently in the context of growing  anxiety over whether automation kills jobs, which Keynes’s predicted it  would.  Technical improvements in manufacture and transport, he wrote,  “have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever  before in history.”  That could lead to a “new disease,” namely  “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economising  the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for  labour.” As the Economist recently observed,  readers of Keynes’s essay at the time of publication might not have  heard of the problem Keynes suggested—“but they were certain to hear a  lot more about it in the years to come.”   Technological innovation has historically delivered more long-run  employment than it has reduced. Could that be changing in the  twenty-first century?

The accelerating advances that Keynes described in his essay are  plainly visible today in communications. In the biosciences perhaps the  most dramatic example of accelerating advance is the rising productivity  and declining cost of DNA sequencing, which has outstripped the doubling of computer chip price-performance every two years under Moore’s law.

Keynes learned economics at King’s College from Alfred Marshall whose foundational Principles of Economics  (1890) was the standard textbook for decades. Today, what we understand  about biology and the brain is insinuating itself into economics.  Fields like molecular biology, brain imaging, and computational modeling  are combining to reveal how the brain’s physical structures use neural  networks to interact and produce a characteristic response to  information from the environment and, indeed, the economy. As a  colleague and I recently wrote:

Twentieth-century economics saw many new schools arise  ranging from Keynesianism, to econometrics, to utility maximization, to  rational expectations / efficient markets, to psychology-based  behavioral eco­nomics. Now biology is being brought to bear on the  mysteries of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” John Maynard Keynes’ “animal  spirits,” and twenty-first-century innovation. Computers are being put  to the task of exploring how the flow of infor­mation in the brain  influences incentives, reward seeking, greed and fear versus cooperation  and altruism in decision making, and what can be understood—and perhaps  predicted—about collective human behavior in market economies.

Keynes was not privy to what the biological and social sciences are  revealing about incentives—about what impels people to behave the way  they do. Our response to economic incentives is being shown to be more  complex than neoclassical economics allows. One wonders whether the  research would change Keynes’s mind. He considered the ‘money motive’ to  be essential for capitalism, with its attendant social customs and  economic practices, to function properly. When the time of material  abundance and abundant leisure arrives, as Keynes predicted it would,  capitalism can be discarded.  “Avarice and usury and precaution must be  our gods for a little longer still,” he wrote in the concluding remarks  of his essay. “For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic  necessity into the daylight.” Surges of innovation are typically  accompanied by labor-market doomsayers, the Economist observed  “but technological progress has never previously failed to generate new  employment opportunities.”  How long, however, are we willing to hang  on to our gods if technological change is actually accompanied by major  social dislocation from mass unemployment?

Alfred Marshall, 1921.
Source: Wikicommons.

The computational models that inform us about economic trends and  human behavior including Keynes’s own theory of aggregate demand,  employment, and economic activity owe a great debt to Alan Turing who  entered King’s College as a scholar the year after Keynes published his  essay. Turing read mathematics as an undergraduate. He was introduced to  the writing of John von Neumann on the logical foundations of quantum  mechanics followed by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.  Soon he found his stride, being awarded a distinguished degree in 1934,  a King’s College junior research fellowship in 1935, and a Smith’s  Prize in 1936 to pursue research on probability theory. That was just  the beginning of his remarkable intellectual journey in mathematical  logic, computer science, cryptography, and biological emergence.

My own journey to appreciating Turing’s genius came about not through  his conceiving of the modern computer in 1935, his notion of a  Universal Machine (today called a Turing Machine) or the ‘Turing test’  for determining whether a machine demonstrates human behavior, or even  Turing’s heroism in deciphering the German Enigma code during World War  II. It was while exploring the economic geography of the early  industrial era, a field pioneered by Keynes’s professor Alfred Marshall,  that I came across Turing’s ideas about biological emergence. An edited  volume of Turing’s writings on Morphogenesis (1992) opens with a  caricature by his mother Sara “of Alan at hockey,” dated “springtime  1923.” The curious thing about the drawing is that, while most players  are huddled around the one of the goals in the outdoor arena, Turing is  off to the side investigating a flower emerging just off the field. His  mother titled the sketch ‘Hockey or Watching the Daisies Grow’. In the  final years of his life – he died by his own hand in 1954 – the wonder  Turing displayed at such emergence while playing hockey came, so to  speak, full flower. He immersed himself in trying to understand the  physical and chemical processes that produce pattern formation in nature  and that are responsible for phyllotaxis, the arrangements of leaves on  the stems of plants. While investigating morphogenesis, Turing  “achieved the distinction of being the first to engage in the  computer-assisted exploration of nonlinear dynamical systems,” wrote B.  Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot in ‘Alan Turing’s Forgotten Ideas in Computer Science‘ published in Scientific American  in 1999. Turing wrote computer programs that model how certain patterns  occur in nature, whether the petal arrangement in flowers, the seed  arrangement in pine cones, or the spots and stripes on animals,

Developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert uses the French flag to help  illustrate the complex, nonlinear dynamics of biological gradients and  the challenge for regenerating tissue: “Given that a line of cells that  can be blue, red, or white, how should they communicate with each other  so as to form a French flag that is one-third red, one-third white, and  one-third blue, and continue to do so even when parts are removed?”  Wolpert asks in his book The Triumph of the Embryo.  Wolpert found the answer in the ability of cells in regenerating  systems to ‘know’ where they are in a coordinate system, a gradient, to  possess positional information. It was Turing who put us on the path to  understanding the chemistry of growth in biological gradients, that is,  in complex organisms like us. Turing pioneered critical features of our  current understanding of form in development, or morphogenesis, as well  as pattern formation. We know today that both processes are controlled  by genes.

Economists interested in economic geography are learning from  biological models of emergence such as the development of the daisy  described by Turing. In his brief and incomplete ‘Outline of the  Development of a Daisy’, Turing writes: “At a certain point in the  development of the daisy the anatomical changes begin. From this point,  as has been mentioned, it becomes hopelessly impracticable to follow the  process mathematically.”

So it is with complex dynamic systems including clusters of  innovation such as the thriving Cambridge cluster (Silicon Fen) with its  1,500 companies employing more than 50,000 people. If Turing had had at  his disposal the oracular hypercomputer he had envisioned, he could  have laid out nature’s daisy program for the whole world to see. The  intricacies and mysteries of Cambridge’s cluster dynamics would likewise  be readily apparent.

That would please Hermann Hauser. The Austrian-born serial technology  entrepreneur was one of the founders of the Cambridge Network and is a  pioneer of Europe’s venture capital industry through Amadeus Capital Partners,  a firm he founded in 1997. Hauser moved quickly into the  entrepreneurial realm in 1977 after earning a doctorate degree in  physics from the Cavendish Laboratory at King’s College, which named him  Honorary Fellow in 1998, an honor with which he joins Keynes.

I met Hauser at Stem Cells Asia 2010 in Seoul where I gave a talk. He  was casually dressed and was wearing sneakers, which set him apart from  other attendees. Hauser has an unassuming, easy-going manner. He talked  about how he does not invest in the pharmaceutical sector but expressed  great interest in the potential of cell therapy to treat disease and  regenerative medicine to restore function in diseased and damaged organs  and tissues. We discussed advances in organ regeneration using stem  cells or progenitor cells to refurbish a diseased or dysfunctional  organ. Pattern recognition is part of this process.

As a serial entrepreneur, Hauser is interested in how entrepreneurs  are educated and trained. Psychological research is also coming into  play: stressing risk tolerance in behavior and personality as well as  the “know-how” of entrepreneurship, for example, could help would-be  entrepreneurs to reframe their decisions, mitigating the negative  perception of risk in starting a new venture. Geography also could play a  role. Hauser agrees, writing in Nature: “One of the beneficial  effects of entrepreneurial clusters in regions such as Silicon Fen may  be that the increased networking and contact amongst the entrepreneurs  works to create a culture that normalizes a more risk-tolerant type of  decision-making.” An entrepreneur’s natural ability is founded on the  inter­action of genes and environment, Hauser contends. In 1997 only 17  percent of entre­preneurs in the portfolio of Amadeus Capital were  serial entrepreneurs. By 2009 about 70 percent were serial  entrepreneurs, contributing substantially to the numerous high-tech  companies in the Cambridge region. “Know-how is transmitted ‘in the air’  within these high-technology clusters,” Hauser wrote, bor­rowing Alfred  Marshall’s phrase. In an email exchange Hauser sent me a passage from  Marshall’s Principles of Economics: “When an industry has chosen a  locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the  advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near  neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of trade become no  mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of  them unconsciously.”

Cambridge, where Marshall taught a century ago, has become a low-risk  area for doing high-risk things, Hauser says, borrowing the phrase from  a Cambridge bioscience entrepreneur.

The risk-taking characteristic of entrepreneurs like Hauser has been  key to the idea of progress ever since the French economist Jean  Baptiste-Say brought the term entrepreneur into general use at the  beginning of the eighteenth century. If there is a symbolic moment for  risk-taking in the context of relentless inquiry, it occurred centuries  earlier. One day when he was a young man wandering in the Tuscan  countryside, Leonardo da Vinci came upon the mouth of a huge cave. As he  stood in front of it, he was seized by the question of what to do—to  explore or to retreat: “I had been there for some time, when there  suddenly arose in me two things, fear and desire—fear of that  threatening dark cave; desire to see if there was some marvelous thing  within.” After negotiating the line between curiosity and fear, he  resolved his dilemma by venturing into the cave of the unknown to see  what he might find. The ‘marvelous thing within’ was, in a very real  sense, the human body as he imagined it, carefully observed it, and  recreated it in two dimensions with his hand. He pondered the mystery of  reproduction and development in a room filled with corpses and their  contents—organs, vessels, muscles, bone, and limbs. Leonardo undertook  the exploratory task at a time when such dissections, Charles Nicholl  writes in his biography Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, “were beset by taboos and doctrinal doubts.”

A King’s College graduate and Royal Society of Literature fellow,  Nicholl has also written about the lives of Christopher Marlowe, Arthur  Rimbaud, Thomas Nashe, and William Shakespeare. He took five years to  research and write Flights of the Mind, Leonardo’s flights into  the artistic and scientific unknown through observation,  experimentation, and creation. Long before Turing, Leonardo was  exploring bodily proportions and natural patterns and expressing them  visually through the mathematics of geometry. He planted the seeds for  many of today’s technologies. In Nicholl’s account, for example, a NASA  scientist who reconstructed a working model of Leonardo’s robot knight,  an automated war machine, described it as “the first known example in  the story of civilization of the programmable analogue computer.”  Leonardo’s humanoid robot made its debut around 1495. From the sixteenth  century, with a “cumulative crescendo” after the eighteenth, Keynes  wrote in his essay, “the great age of science and technical inventions  began, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been in  full flood” swept along by “automatic machinery and the methods of mass  production.”

Nicholl reminds us that dissection was a messy thing in Leonardo’s  day. It took a special genius “to make visual sense of the unfamiliar  landscape of glutinous and collapsing forms” and then to draw them with  such precision, beauty, and transparency, particularly under the  constant threat of being discovered by the authorities. Taking an  umbilical cord from a deceased mother with child, Leonardo held it  aloft, examined it, and drew it into his anatomical masterpiece, The Fetus in the Womb. He called it the “great mystery.”

Five centuries after Leonardo’s foray into a Tuscan cave, a story appeared on the front page of The New York Times  that harkened back to Leonardo’s great mystery. Written by veteran  science reporter Nicholas Wade, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in  natural science from King’s College, the story was headlined ‘Scientists Cultivate Cells at Root of Human Life‘.  Wade’s opening sentence made it clear this was not just another of the  research advances that occupy an ever-growing segment of the daily news:  “Pushing the frontiers of biology closer to the central mystery of  life, scientists have for the first time picked out and cultivated the  primordial human cells from which an entire individual is created.”

Wade’s story appeared in 1998 upon the publication of a study in Science  in which James Thomson and his research team showed that they had  isolated and grown embryonic stem cells from human blastocysts obtained  from a fertility clinic. A great debate over the moral status of the  human embryo ensued. Since then Wade has written three books about  genetics and human evolution: Before the Dawn (2007), The Faith Instinct (2009), and A Troublesome Inheritance  (2014). Perhaps no writer today has sought as energetically as Wade to  bring to the general public the story of what genetic variation from  genomic studies means for understanding early human migration and  subsequent human development and culture. Not since our ancestral  population, in Wade’s words, “was still confined to its homeland in  northeast Africa but had begun to show the first signs of modern  behavior” has technology allowed us to look so deeply into our own  evolutionary experience.

A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade’s foray into the minefield of  genetic variation and race, has not been well received by those who see  race as a “social construct” with no basis in biology. Anxiety about a  revival of eugenics in the genomics era is not entirely misplaced. After  all, for all his brilliance Keynes served as director of the British  Eugenics Society late in his life, calling the field “the most  important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology  which exists” shortly before his death in 1946. Writing before he  published his ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ essay,  Keynes thought the time would come when “the community as a whole must  pay attention to the innate quality as well as the mere number of its  future members.”

Wade sees the issue as how best to sustain the fight against racism  in light of new information from the human genome that bears on race.  “My belief is that opposition to racism should be based on principle,  not on science,” he wrote in the Huffington Post.  “If I oppose racism and discrimination as a matter of principle, I  don’t care what the science may say because I’ll never change my  position. As it happens, however, the genome gives no support to racism,  although it does clearly show that race has a biological basis, just as  common sense might suggest.” Metabolism of drugs, for example, may be  influenced by race and ethnicity as well as diet and other medications.

The $3 billion Human Genome Project  was funded by Congress in 1990 for its promise of medical treatments,  not for its value to evolutionary studies. A decade after President Bill  Clinton announced in 2000 that the first draft of the human genome  sequence was complete, in the eyes of some, Wade included, the human  genomics field had yet to live up to its billing as a predictor of  disease let alone as a founda­tion for a new generation of therapies.  Under the New York Times headline ‘A Decade Later, Genetic Map  Yields Few New Cures’, Wade observed that the linking common genetic  variations tightly with disease risk had proved devilishly difficult.  The tight linkage of disease risk seemed to be reserved for rare genetic  variations, which could be identified with whole-genome sequencing.  “That approach is now becoming feasible because the cost of sequencing  has plummeted, from about $500 million for the first human genome  completed in 2003 to costs of $5,000 to $10,000 that are expected next  year,” Wade reported in June 2010. Several months earlier Wade had  described how geneticists had given a pre­view of the power of personal  genomics when they reported that whole-genome sequencing had enabled  them to pinpoint rare mutations that cause recessive Mendelian disorders  in families. The findings suggested to geneticists that it is pos­sible  to sequence the entire genome of a patient “at reasonable cost and with  suf­ficient accuracy to be of practical use to medical researchers.”  Less than four years later the scientific instrument company Illumina  announced that it had developed technology that can sequence the genome  of a human cell for $1,000, a milestone in the field.

At the end of the last millennium, the scientist and Nobel economist  Robert W. Fogel was astonished that so soon after Kitty Hawk a man was  standing on the moon. Fogel used the example in his presidential address  to the American Economic Association to illustrate the challenge the  economics profession faces in trying to keep up with the dizzying pace  of technological change and the enormous advances in food production,  nutrition, public health, and human longevity over the past three  centuries. His timeline of technological innovation and population  growth reflects the “cumulative crescendo” of scientific and technical  advances beginning in the nineteenth century that Keynes wrote about in  his essay. “We are slow in pondering such grand questions as the  implications of the Human Genome Project, which is now nearing  completion, and the emergence of molecular medi­cine for the future of  economic life”

When he gave his talk in 1999, Fogel saw that the machines that  Turing envisioned were transforming society. Innovation and  entrepreneurship championed by the likes of Hauser were driving  technological change. In societies with abundant food the human body had  assumed greater proportions since the day that Leonardo, as described  by Nicholl, had drawn it with such precision, beauty, and transparency.  The gene and the cell were disclosing their operating instructions, a  process of discovery that no one chronicled more completely than Wade.  “We have entered an era in which purposeful intervention in evolutionary  processes is passing beyond plant and animal breeding”, Fogel said.  “The new growth economics needs to incorporate at least some aspects of  directed, rapid human evolution.”

The children and grandchildren of Keynes’s generation were materially  much better off than their parents and grandparents. One of the reasons  is their own ingenuity. They launched revolutions in information  technology and space exploration. They harnessed the power and  versatility of biological science, genetics, and reproduction to feed  the world and control fertility. Today the possibilities for our  grandchildren, in addition to their task of managing the abundance and  leisure that Keynes predicted, might well include managing their health  and understanding their dispositions from knowledge of the three billion  letters in their genetic code. The possibilities might include the  editing of genomes to correct misspellings responsible for disease and  mental illness and to alter the human germline thus altering our own  cellular journey from its African origins.

Though Keynes mentions Darwin in his essay, the ability of our  descendents to guide the evolution of our species is probably not  something he had in mind while musing about the future of work. It makes  the counsel he expressed toward the end of his essay all the more  perspicacious: there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our  destiny.


All by
William Hoffman