Do Mother Nature's laws apply to the Sharing Economy?

Darwin’s theory of evolution is commonly interpreted as a fierce competition among species, in a fight to survive and evolve - ‘survival of the fittest’. However, there are many collaborative behaviors exhibited by most animals that allowed them to survive and adapt. It is important to acknowledge that mutual assistance is not a weakness in species, but rather, an innovative way to evolve further.

The Lotka-Volterra model

Vito Volterra, an Italian mathematician and physicist of the early 20th century, faced a curious population dynamics problem. Between 1905 and 1923, the populations of sardines and their predators in the Adriatic Sea seemed to oscillate with a shift in phase. Volterra, a specialist in dynamic systems and differential equations, built an evolution model for these populations and published it in 1926. In the meantime, an American mathematician called Alfred J. Lotka published an equivalent model (in 1924). As a result, the "Lotka-Volterra" model was born.

Lotka-Volterra model

The model is fairly surprising. In nature, variations in the prey population are almost always proportional to the population of their main predator and vice versa. Logically, when the prey population declines, so does the population of the predator. However, sometimes the trends seem counterintuitive. For example, it has been observed that when the number of Bobcats declined, the population of its prey, the hare, also declined steadily over the following years, while intuitively, we expected an increase. Then, when the predator population starts to increase again, that of its prey also suddenly starts to increase. Contrary to our expectation, these phenomena turn out to be "ratio-dependent", not "density-dependent".

These cycles bear a strong resemblance to autocatalytic systems that stabilize themselves, with relationships between predators and prey that run through feedback loops still unknown to us. The Lotka-Volterra model highlighted an intriguing fact to scientists: the predator is the most fragile of the two species in the prey-predator relationship.

predator is the most fragile in the prey-predator relationship

The threshold below which the number of prey is no longer enough to support the livelihood of the predator is reached much more quickly than the threshold at which the prey is no longer sufficiently numerous to ensure a stable reproduction rate. This means that the prey are stronger due to their numbers!

Is evolution really about competition?

The prey-predator relationship model is now used widely in biology, as well as in several other scientific fields. Recently, scientists attempted to adapt it to economics (particularly for market speculation). New areas of application emerged as researchers found correlations between animal populations and human organizations, especially in competitive environments where companies compete for the same customer segments. To this day, no one was able to build a satisfying model to represent business competition based on the Lotka-Volterra model. Even if it appears that a certain degree of competition is essential, economists continue to search for feedback loops and other factors that could better explain how businesses can survive through adapting to market changes.

Having said that, surely competition cannot be the only force that influences the business economy? What if another strong, but underlying force is involved?

Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Lisbon, Portugal

Researchers at Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal placed rats into pairs and gave one of the rats a choice: open one door to get a chunk of food for yourself, or open another door so both rats receive a reward. 70 percent of the time, the rats made the prosocial choice. Scientists also observed the rats attempting to free a trapped comrade and exhibiting pain and anxiety responses at the sight of another rat in distress. Rats are not the only animal to have each other's back. Selfless behaviors have been observed or experimented with squirrels, dogs, dolphins, bonobo monkeys, and chimpanzees. Successful species, including humans, seems to be predisposed to cooperation, mutual assistance, and selfless behavior.

Moreover, mutual assistance is not limited to individuals of the same species. Scientists discovered selfless behavior between differing species: whales and seals, birds and monkeys, etc. On top of that, stories of dolphins or dogs rescuing humans are countless. The more we observe, the more collaboration we discover in the natural world.

Competition is not the only way species interact. Even Darwin's theory of evolution never explained the changes and adaption of species solely with competition. Many species learn to work together in order to survive - schools of fish swimming together to appear larger to their predators, packs of wolves that have a specific formation to protect the strongest of the pack, squirrels that communicate about dangers among themselves and with other species…

a school of fish displays collaborative behavior

Perhaps 'survival of the fittest' has not been interpreted in the way it was intended. After all, it is not merely about competing against every other living creature - it is about being smart, careful, innovative, and collaborative, in order to stay alive.

We are used to thinking of evolution as changes in physical features of species in order to adapt to their environment better. However, there are countless examples of species evolving not to adapt to their environment, but because they discover that a certain new way of behaving allows them to prosper as an individual or a species. Innovations in behavior is a very common trigger for changes in physical features as well.

Embracing the Sharing Economy

These findings bring us to the question, why are we trying to avoid the concept of the Sharing Economy when it is so natural for us as living creatures?

If we consider the final consumer as prey, a victim of barbaric capitalism, only peer-to-peer collaboration and mutual support that is based purely on human generosity can protect them from the big bad wolves, the private companies.

Sharing is something that is natural for us, and collaboration help propel evolution forward. Indeed, just like the prey in the predator-prey scenario, consumers are stronger when they stand together.

In fact, we consider the Sharing Economy as something new and frightening, but sharing has always been a big part of our society. The extent of our technological advances simply allows the sharing to be a lot more commonplace and widespread.

It's time to embrace the Sharing Economy. Resisting it simply hinders our evolution as a species.