Adam Smith's Humans Weren't Bugs or Grass
What 2024's cicada cavalcade reminds us about mortality, markets, and the uniqueness of humankind
NOTE: I’m posting excerpts from my not-yet-published book, Fifty-Million-Dollar Baby: A Skeptic’s Eyes on Economics, Ethics, and Health. The goal is to edit the manuscript in plain view—to seek your comments, corrections, and suggestions. Part of this essay is a lightly edited version of one that I wrote in 2021 for InsideSources.
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My wife, Alanna, just presented me with the glorious news that this spring, our home may be surrounded by the deafening roar of billions of large, oversexed insects who have been waiting to get it on since 2011—a year before Tinder went public—and who will die not long after they swipe right. This news presents me with a timely opportunity to revisit some lessons on how these particular insects relate to Psalm 90, Verse 10; why that matters a great deal to me this year; what that Psalm has to do with Abraham Lincoln and the myth of Prometheus; what Adam Smith taught us about markets and self-interest; how smart people like Stephen Jay Gould have always gotten Adam Smith’s message totally wrong; and the awe-inspiring mathematical skills of flora and fauna.
The coming of these insects also invites me to offer you the single weirdest piece of music I have ever composed and the single weirdest work of art my wife has ever painted.
THREESCORE AND TEN
My mother often enjoyed telling people of an epiphany she had in synagogue as the congregation read aloud from Psalm 90, Verse 10:
“The days of our years are threescore and ten.”
In other words, says the Psalmist, the normal human lifespan ends at 70 years of age. Mom said she told the person sitting next to her, “Hey wait a minute. I’m 72!” Last month, the days of my own years reached threescore and ten. Mom made it to fourscore and thirteen (93), and Dad fell just short of fourscore and four (84). I hope to share in their longevity, but whatever providence grants, I’m deeply grateful for the years I have been afforded thus far.
Combining verse 10 with verses 11 and 12 yields a message more profound than my mother’s one-line quip. The King James Version has it as follows:
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. // Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. // So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
The version found in the Jewish Publication Society’s Hebrew Bible is not as poetic as the KJV, but the meaning is clearer to my 20th/21st century ears and eyes:
“The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. // Who can know Your furious anger? Your wrath matches the fear of You. // Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.”
For me, the most telling phrase is, “Teach us to count our days rightly,” which I take to mean, “Always recall that life is short, so use it well.” Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses (whom The Bible says lived sixscore years). This sonority, profundity, and mood of this passage likely inspired Abraham Lincoln’s to begin his Gettysburg Address with, “Fourscore and seven years ago …”
But history offers an ironic contrast with Psalm 90. In Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods and bestows it upon humanity, thereby precipitating the birth of human creativity and the rise of civilization. One scholarly interpretation of that story is that the theft of fire is but a metaphor—that what Prometheus really did was to deprive humans of the capacity to number their days. By this telling, before his theft, every human knew in advance the exact length of his or her life, and it was this certainty that made humankind lazy and uncreative. (If one knows exactly how long he has to live, why bother producing anything interesting or working hard to accumulate savings for old age?) Despite the seeming contrast between teaching one to count the days and depriving one of the capacity to do so, I think the Greek myth and the Biblical passage really impart the same message—uncertainty about the timing of one’s own mortality is the font of creativity.
But the bulk of my story today is about creatures who never received the wisdom of Psalm 90:10-12 or the gift of Prometheus—the billions of Brood XIII cicadas who will soon surround my house, fill the air with the sounds of their orgy, and then meet their Maker. Their children will burrow into the ground and emerge in the Spring of 2037, when I will either be fourscore and three or else I’ll be feeding the roots that feed the cicadas.
Most likely the arrival of Brood XIII in 2024 will not be quite as spectacular as 2021’s emergence of Brood X. (That’s a Roman numeral “10,” not a letter “X”). These are creatures who need not learn to number their days, as their days are pre-numbered with remarkable precision. What follows below is a lightly edited version of my essay, “Adam Smith versus Bamboo and Cicadas,” published in 2021 by InsideSources.
But first, for your edification and listening pleasure, here’s the weirdest piece of music I ever composed—accompanied by some salient facts on periodical cicadas. You may wish to play this music while reading the remainder of this essay. “Cicadas, Brood X” represents the emergence, mating frenzy, and demise of these remarkable creatures. I recorded the cicadas and the birds feasting upon them, and this recording of nature at its strangest underlies the whole composition. Over this din is a melody performed on tubular bells, French horns, oboes, steel drums, and accordion.
WHAT STEPHEN JAY GOULD MISUNDERSTOOD
In the midst of 2021’s Brood X emergence, I set out to write an essay on spontaneous order—billions of living beings acting in concert without central direction. My idea was to explore the sharp dissimilarity between spontaneous order among animals and among humans. I thought to call it “Cicadas and Adam Smith,” only to discover that, in 1977, the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould had written an essay—grievously wrongheaded, in my view—titled, “Of Bamboos, Cicadas, and the Economy of Adam Smith.”
With essays and cicadas, Ecclesiastes rings loudly across the millennia:
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
The literal truth of that statement hovered under the sun around our Virginia home for weeks. In 2021, my wife and I had box seats to an opera of Brood X cicadas. The miraculous choreography of their life-cycle can be seen in this video by Sir David Attenborough:
In 2021, after 17 years of sucking tree roots, billions of nymphs emerged when the soil temperature reached precisely 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Males rattled nonstop throughout daylight hours to attract females. Then, countless hummingbird-looking females flitted about our trees, laying eggs. Then, the din calmed as the entire generation died, one-by-one. Soon, hatchlings dropped from the branches and burrowed underground. Finally, the opera’s curtain descended, with no further performances scheduled until 2038.
An engaging writer, Gould sometimes combined the erudite with the erroneous. His attempt to parallelize the life cycles of bamboo and cicadas with the economy described by Adam Smith is such a case. Ironically, Gould briefly alighted on and then flew away from exactly why spontaneous order among humans has little in common with that of the natural world.
Gould hypothesized why certain bamboo species flower only once every 120 years and why periodical cicadas’ life cycles extend across prime numbers of years. (There are 17-year and 13-year species.) They likely do so to assure that no predatory species can develop a lasting taste for them. Gould’s insights into these phenomena are worth reading.
But the spontaneous order of cicadas and bamboo arises from decentralized actions of mindless automatons. Gould says, “Darwinian theory advocates no higher principle beyond individuals pursuing their own self-interest.” That adequately describes Darwinian theory and likely presents an accurate description of bamboo and cicadas.
But Gould greatly misunderstood economics when he wrote:
“The problem is similar to that faced by Adam Smith when he advocated an unbridled policy of laissez-faire as the surest path to a harmonious economy.”
Citing Smith’s famous “invisible hand” from The Wealth of Nations, Gould summoned forth the frequent caricature that Smith’s individuals “follow no path beyond the pursuit of their best interests.” In 2019, in Edinburgh, I found that sentiment scrawled on a sign at Smith’s gravesite—likely painted by some bampot who had feasted on the same intellectual tree roots as Gould.
Smith was a philosopher with a profound interest in human morality. His other magnum opus, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, begins with the declaration,
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
His two great books grapple with the symbiosis of altruism and self-interest.
Gould mentions and then ignores what differentiates humans from flora and fauna. Again, bamboo and cicadas evolved their calendrically odd cycles to prevent predators from exploiting their cycles. No species can predict its next flourishing, Gould says, except “one peculiar primate that records its own history.” And therein lies what he and others miss about Adam Smith.
Humans record their histories and, since the dawn of writing, vast quantities of those records entail contracts covering commerce, property, marriage, bequests, and other aspects of human life. Charity, courtesy, empathy, and sympathy are integral parts of the self-interest that enables Smith’s economic agents to live in harmony. Like others, Gould conflated market economics with the cartoonish survival-of-the-fittest Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and his ilk.
At the conclusion of my 2021 piece, I promised readers that I would retire to my deck, listen to the music of the cicadas, and perhaps send a few checks to my favorite charities. Rest in peace, Mr. Gould, but wherever you are, please note that I am a human being, not a species of insect or grass. If you remain confused, Adam Smith is likely available for consultation.
Northern Illinois will get the most spectacular gathering this year, as it will see the re-emergence of the Brood XIII 13-year cicadas that we will see in Northern Virginia and the simultaneous emergence of Brood XIX 17-year cicadas. Such a meetup happens only once every 221 years (221 being the product of these two prime numbers—13×17). So these two vast families, meeting up during Joe Biden’s presidency, last saw one another in 1803, during Thomas Jefferson’s time in the White House. The 17th-great-grandchildren of Brood XIII will cavort with the 13th-great-grandchildren of Brood XIX. No doubt, they’ll have lots of catching up to do. (The two broods can mate with one another, despite their differences of opinion on mathematics.)
ART & MUSIC: CICADA CYCLE and ELEGY AND METAMORPHOSIS
After I wrote my strangest-ever song, “Cicadas, Brood X,” she produced her strangest-ever painting, “Cicada Cycle,” and I composed a second song, “Elegy and Metamorphosis,” to accompany it. As the video explains, the painting portrays the life cycle of 17-year cicadas. Dozens of actual 2021 cicada wings are embedded in the bottom/center, giving the painting both texture and historicity. Alanna was inspired by the delicate structures, the gossamer touch, and the incredible fragility of the wings.