Saturday, May 7, 2011

EconOMNOMNOMics

I'm making my way through Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking right now (a classic, sort of an encyclopedia of food science), and I came across this fascinating passage:
Pale though it is, the egg white has surprising depths. Of course it supplies the developing embryo with essential water and protein. But biochemical studies have revealed that the albumen proteins are not mere baby food. At least four of the proteins block the action of digestive enzymes. At least three bind tightly to vitamins, which prevents them from being useful to other creatures, and one does the same for iron, an essential mineral for bacteria and animals alike. One protein inhibits the reproduction of viruses, and another digests the cell walls of bacteria. In sum, the egg white is first of all a chemical shield against infection and predation, forged during millions of years of battling between the nourishing egg and a world of hungry microbes and animals...Cooked -- to neutralize the protective antinutritional proteins -- the egg is one of the most nutritious foods we have. (Raw, it causes laboratory animals to lose weight)...
...Designed as it was to protect itself for the duration of the chick's development, the egg is unique among our raw animal foods in its ability to remain edible for weeks.
In the evolutionary arms race there are a few strategies to keep from being eaten, besides hiding or being able to defend yourself. You can bundle your nutrients together with (a) poison or (b) foul-tasting chemicals. Or, apparently, you can (c) lock up your nutrients so that others can't use them.

One of these things is not like the other...

Actually, I would single out option (b). Targeting the tastes of others, versus diminishing your underlying nutritional value to them, is sort of a different strategy. [In fact, the mighty egg is in a sense poisonous: Unsurprisingly, the same proteins that bind its own nutrients tightly are equally eager to suck up the nutrients in our own bodies, should we ingest them. According to wikipedia, people who eat raw egg whites on a regular basis will invariably begin to suffer from biotin deficiency as a protein in the egg binds their biotin. Sounds rather like the workings of a poison to me...]

Why is this at all related to economics? I am coming to realize that evolutionary game theory is a nice angle on the nebulous problem of equilibrium selection. In some sense we are all playing a big game with evolving tastes, and the underlying technology (nutritional content of the world, you might say? what we can get out of the resources that are in front of us) is changing too. Where are we going? Important to think about the differences between tastes and technology, in terms of how they evolve.

(A nebulous post, for admittedly nebulous thoughts).

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