criticsWhy is criticism of Evolutionary Economics so passionate & polarising?

Passion and fervour abound as economists, scientists, political analysts and religious believers debate the idea of universal Darwinism - there is no comfortable consensus - even Darwin's fundamental theory of biological evolution is still rejected by many and then, for most, it is a leap too far to apply the process to human decision making. 

Criticisms of evolutionary economics as the science of choice can be grouped into broad categories - 

1 Economics is not a deterministic science   

The future is an unknowable, uncertain, unpredictable, indeterminate reality. Economics is a descriptive fantasy and not an orthodox predictive mathematical science. Darwinian theory does not apply to economics.

Yes we agree ... our italics ... but the non-linear maths of Darwin's Complex Adaptive Systems is not orthodox.

2 Human behaviour is not reducible to biology   

Human activity is too complex for rational understanding. Economics is only a theory, based on 'unrealistic assumptions' and 'cause & effect reductionism' with 'no moral foundation' ... ignoring 'free will', 'human intentionality', 'cultural learning' and the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Raymond Tallis demolished what he calls 'Dawinitis' & 'Scientism' which he suggested had -

'given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology & economics'.

'grotesquely simplifies humanity', 'biological reductionism & gene-determined human behaviour (socio-biology, neuro-Darwinism & evolutionary psychology) and their rather dismal conclusions are my main target', 'the notion of the human being as an aware, self-conscious agent, different from animals is undermined'.

'seen us as unwitting playthings of an immensely complex brain', 'mental activity is entirely subordinated to the requirements of survival'.

reduced human life to a succession of programmed responses to external stimuli overlooks the complexity', 'distinctively human ends are subordinated to biological givens', 'the Hoover Dam was legislated into place; beaver dams require no such instruments to bring them about' ... 'the blind watchmaker has  acquired eyes' ?

Tallis specifically identified, 'evolutionary economics' as a target. He was an unusual critic because he insisted -

 'I am utterly persuaded of Darwin’s account of our origins, at the biological level ...'but somewhere along the way to complex humanity, the copy/vary/select process stops'

Yes we agree ... our italics ... but what stopped Darwin's evolution? Were the laws of nature replaced? By ... what? ... an alternative theory of change?

3  Selfishness is immoral  

Normative moral sentiments confront nature red in tooth and claw.
The rational hard nosed self interested economic theory has little to contribute to normative moral sentiments which should dominate policy choice. Economic theory does not apply to moral human behaviour.

Mary Midgley reminded us that misunderstanding good evolutionary biology results in bad policy - 

'naturalistic fallacy', what is natural is not necessarily good 

facts about what 'is' cannot tell us what 'ought' to be 

nature is not always 'red in tooth and claw'

evolution is not an 'escalator to some Panglossian pinnacle' 

'I am against scientific arrogance, there is a faith that physical science is the answer to all our terrible questions, reducing our direct, everyday experience of reality into terms of something more distant, preferably involving statistics and where possible machinery. In spite of huge differences between cultures, all we know about human behaviour shows that it can be understood only by reference to people's own thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears and other feelings. This is not something invented by a particular culture. It's universal'.

Yes we agree ... our italics ... but there is a strong argument against arrogance ... admitting ignorance is a prerequisite for experimentation ... Darwin's natural selection explains the universal scientific evidence ... so far.

4 Human intentions matter  

Choices are self conscious human intentionality. Human behavioural choice is mediated by deliberate rational purposeful intentional plans and intelligent designs which are not part of the evolutionary process. Human intentionality is explained by alternative creationist theories of design.

Edith Penrose pinpointed the uncomfortable issue that Darwin appeared to exclude purposeful behaviour and inheritance of acquired characteristics ... and human intentionality seemed to be an essential part of all economic and social theory.

Yes we agree ... our italics ... but human intentionality can be explained by Darwin's natural selection.


These 'difficulties' are reminiscent of ancient debates -

faith v. reason debate which Thomas Aquinas wrestled with

ancient v. modern debate during the scientific revolution which hindered Copernicus

Cartesian dualism debate which now involves choices by rational calculation and neural Darwinism & heuristic trial & error

C P Snow's two cultures debate of 1959 which involved 'never the twain shall meet' ...

Darwin always had many formidable critics.

GiraffesA New Paradigm.

Evolutionary Economics is a very different way of thinking, which involves experimenting with the non-linear maths of feedback & emergence rather than the linear maths of the cause & effect ... leading to new insights into the way complex adaptive human activity systems work ... based on empirical scientific methodology evolutionary economics embraces complexity, uncertainty, moral sentiments, free will, cultural learning and human intentionality as evolutionary outcomes ... but it cannot and doesn't claim to -

predict an unknowable future nor

provide unknowable 'causes' for the immense complexity of economic growth. 

The evolutionary economic process is adaptation, just as short necked giraffes died out so too do uneconomic choices - Joseph Schumpeter called it 'creative destruction' - there is no known physical alternative -

'intelligent design' cannot do it because of ignorance about the future and

 nobody knows because it is 'know how' itself that is evolving

... and eventually, after many false dawns and wrong turnings some economic scientists started to provide evidence.

Adam the Smith (moral sentiments & invisible hands) anticipated Darwin's ideas. He was a moral philosopher who wrote about the moral sentiments of social market exchange between cooperating folk doing deals of mutual benefit. He did not write about individual selfishness.

Charles Darwin believed natural selection was applicable to human behaviour, what survived was what helped survival. He explained the origin of social animals; he did not suggest social folk were involved in a rat race of survival of the fittest; red in tooth and claw.

Joel Mokyr neatly reconciled Darwin & Smith -

'Economic growth depends on the growth in human knowledge, both in terms of what is known (the science) and who does the knowing (the learners). 'Know how' for genial niche construction results from synergies of specialisation & scale (cooperation) not by theft from others (confiscation). Genial niches are constructed by blind variation and selective retention'.

Joseph Schumpeter (creative destruction), Herbert Simon (satisficing), Donald T Campbell (blind variation & selective retention), Daniel Kahneman (thinking fast & slow), Schiller, Levitt ... many more ... soon to 'include in' all?

Before 1859 there was no evolutionary theory, everybody accepted intelligent design, however since Darwin there has been a constant stream of science that has provided supporting evidence - here are just a few breakthroughs which seem to be important to a golden thread of better understanding - 

2nd Law of Thermodynamics & directional innovative change

Pierre Laplace, Henri Poincaré & unknowable 'three body' calculation problems

Adam Smith & invisible hands of self organisation

Lyell & geological change processes over deep time

Darwin & natural selection and pervasive explanations which exclude intelligent design

Mendel & genetic inheritance 

Crick and Watson & DNA bio-chemistry and copying errors

Hamilton & inclusive fitness, population dynamics & social cooperation

Maynard Smith & evolutionarily stable strategies & tit for tat

Trivers & reciprocal altruism & cooperation

Axelrod & positive sum games & cooperative synergies

Sanger & molecular biology of genomes & transfer of 'know how'

Edelman & adaptive immune systems & neural Darwinism

Dawkins & universal Darwinism

Pinker & language, culture & the brain  

Santa Fe Institute & computer simulations, non-linear mathematics & 'emergence'

Geoffrey Hodgson & from analogy to ontology

Lee Smolin & the evolving whole shebang & caboodle

The Brights identified 70 scientific references summarising progress on understanding the behaviour of social animals.

The evidence mounted for Darwin's 'precise process' which involved 'difficult' concepts -

it just happened - evolution was described by the 2nd law of thermodynamics

natural selection - the long necked giraffe wasn't designed rather the short necked giraffes died out

copy vary select mechanism - describes a natural process, nothing supernatural

genetic mechanisms - explained the process not the immensely complex physiology & embryology

sex & brains generate diversity - the peacock's tail was explained by the peahen's behaviour

inheritance from common ancestors - accumulated survival 'know how'

species folk and apes - small genetic differences over aeons of generations produced big phenotype differences

DNA finger prints - traced deep history from Africa and beyond

4.5 billion year old earth - provided deep time fossils recorded a change process but only the adaptations were observed 

moral sentiments - evolved as the peahen responded to cooperative psychological propensities from her mate ... if her chicks were to survive ...

Clearly there are immutable difficulties in understanding. Clearly a golden thread of better understanding is not inevitable Panglossian progress ... there is a caveat - the muddy waters of evolutionary economics are complicated by the Darwinian reality that along with wealth creation, inevitably come parasites & predators ... great men were often misinterpreted.

And all this doesn't 'prove' anything ... David Hume and Karl Popper pointed out 'the problem of induction' - just because you've seen 1000 white swans it doesn't mean the next one won't be black ...

Nevertheless the evidence mounts

The evidence supporting the evolution of a complex adaptive system of human behaviour; a complex whole shebang & caboodle of universal Darwinism ... relentlessly mounts ... evolutionary explanations for economic growth seem more and more plausible ... and an alternative scientific theory of change doesn't exist.

Science is a spectacular method for better understanding the evidence we observe. Successful practical economic theory is underpinned by science -

observation - evidence of the senses, everything else is a woven web of guesses

mathematical theory - precise imaginative description, a verifiable system of assumptions and rules in the mind which explain a wide variety of interconnected phenomena in physical reality, in general terms

testable hypotheses - convincing prediction, suggested explanations as a basis for verification and further reasoning without an assumption of truth

experimental validation - repeatable evidence, convincing the jury

peer review - the triumph of science over the whims of Bishops, Princes, Generals and bureaucratic majorities

These robust empirical elements are absent in alternative a priori knowledge acquisition systems and learning is faster as experimental evidence becomes available for analysis.

Economic activity in cultural institutions seems to become more complex & more responsive, more & more adapted to changing environments. Patterns of statistical uniformity emerge from around the world and scientific method suggests the process is not random, but a process of emergence in complex adaptive systems - alternative, less responsive, wealth creation strategies don't survive. 

AspirationBut the penny has to drop

Giraffes & long necks ... folk & aspirations ... businesses & profit ... were difficult to grasp examples of Darwin's insight - 

 A pre-existing inherited variant with a survival advantage in the local environment will always increase in population frequency as alternative variants die out, thus changing the environment which then inevitably feeds back and influences the survival chances of any new variant.

but the penny has to drop ...

Consider the baffling question -

The chances are your children will be slightly less intelligent than you and yours but the chances are your grandchildren will be slightly more intelligent than you and yours?

Consider an answer from Paul Seabright, Doctor of Philosophy in Economics, University of Oxford who described a 'sifting' process not a 'design' process -

'The overwhelming majority of genetic mutations will be damaging. But those children who survive to reproduce will likely be slightly more intelligent than their parents and transmit this slight advantage to their own children'.

In 1976 Richard Dawkins gave us the 'necker cube' insight, and sussed out evolutionary economics.

The Necker CubeThe Necker Cube illustrated conflicting points of view, two ways of looking at familiar things like natural selection. There existed 'a view from above' bias; more people, more often looked at the cube from above and saw point A as nearer than B.

This was a 'design bias' ... after all it was most often imagined that God designed the world from 'above'?

Dawkins suggested a 'bottom up process with feedback' focused on genetic statistical populations in the human gene pool -

'A different view provides a deeper understanding of economic strategies for minimising costs and maximising benefits. Genes manipulate the world and shape it to assist their replication'.

It was 'as if' genes with eyes did cost / benefit analysis and constructed niches which changed the environment and fed back and effected the survival chances of the genes, thus reinforcing any predispositions towards survival behaviour.

Social animals discovered synergies of specialisation & scale. Step by step the compound interest of genetic cooperative behaviour evolved and eventually became hard wired in the involuntary chemistry of endorphins, oxytosins and prolactins.

Chemical sanction & reward systems ... ? ... give me a break ... it was all very difficult -

The Boeing 747, just like James Watt's steam engine, evolved through natural selection not intelligent design ... intelligent design is natural selection ... honest ... what else could it be?

Evolutionary Economics, Education & Ten Difficult Difficulties -

Complex Adaptive Systems =

'entropy' - Thermodynamics (complexity, change, conflict & scarcity)

'anthropomorphic & anthropic reasoning' - Economic Anthropology ('know how' accumulates across generations in institutions & cultures) 

'emergence' - Emergent Feedback (hierarchies of evolutionary stable structures)

'non-linearity' - Non-Linear Maths (computer simulation)

'natural selection' - Molecular Biology (neo-Darwinian synthesis copy/vary/natural selection)

'cognitive bias' - Evolutionary Psychology (self-conscious choices as flip flopping emotions of excitement & fear discover 'know how' and memory & reason accumulate 'know how')

'theory of mind' - Game Theory (cooperative synergies) 

'self consciousness' - Neuroscience (hierarchies of naturally selected neural networks & circuits as survival aids)

'opportunity costs' - Biological History (evidence of gene/culture coevolution & social animal synergies) 

See evolutionary economics theory.

Daniel Dennett -

The giraffe's long neck has no meaningful 'cause' it emerges from the death of short necked giraffes. And there is no known physical way that deliberate stretching, rational logic, purposeful entreaty, intentional instruction nor planned design by the most intelligent can make it thus. 

Read that last paragraph again if you really want to understand evolutionary economics ...  

Or try this?

Sparrows we see living today construct nests because pre-existing genetic variants from the past differentially survived and accumulated. The ancient sparrows that didn't build nests died out.

There is no evidence of any supernatural intelligent design alternative.

Or this?

Folk we see living today constructed Boeing 747s because pre-existing imaginative variants from the past differentially survived and accumulated. Different species, different behaviour, different niches but the same vary, select, copy process.

The challenge is to grasp the universal Darwinian concept of survival 'know how' emerging from complex dynamics by the elimination of inferior alternatives - nothing supernatural, nothing restricted to biology, nothing pre-determined, nothing unethical, nothing anthropocentric, nothing about divining future success and ... the Darwinian selection process is natural, unpredictable, cooperative, universal and blind ...

The great achievement of evolutionary economics has been to identify a precise process by which imperfect competitive global markets in 'know how' can efficiently & equitably ameliorate some individual problems through synergies ... without harming others.

Our own study of family history, science, music and evolution suggests we can understand the immense complexity of the behaviour of our great grandfather because we have direct experience of the same universal emotional feelings ... we know Darwin's process of natural selection produced diversity, complexity and emergent phenomena ... and thus a humbling ignorance ... about the future ... and about interpretations of the past.

But we can learn.

Criticism of economic science becomes unsustainable if the consequences of evolutionary economic behavioural strategies is a drop in infant mortality?

Learn, learn and more learning!

Copy - Imitate success & copying is not theft but flattery.

Vary - Diversity & difference are not waste but experiment.

Select - Natural selection & death are not choices but outcomes.

Think about it ...

Charles Darwin -

‘In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Light will be thrown on the origins of man and his history’.

Stephen Hawking -

'Some individuals are better able than others to draw the right conclusions about the world about them and act accordingly. These individuals will be more likely to survive and reproduce so their pattern of behaviour and thought will become dominant'.

Robert Axelrod -

‘The key to doing well lies not in overcoming others but in eliciting their co-operation. Individuals don’t have to be rational; the evolutionary process alone allows successful strategy to thrive, even if the players do not know why or how. No central authority is needed, cooperation is self policing’.

George Shackle -

'We are ignorant of what it is we do not know even though we know more than we can ever say'.

Paul Romer's 'Endogenous Growth Theory' explained how economic growth and wealth creation could result from the evolution of 'know how' ... but by trial & error not by calculation ...  

In this way a remarkably complex world can be understood, not in complex detail, but by a simple precise process ... copy / vary / select ...

On September 26th 2014 the Financial Times editorial proclaimed -

'That people are selfish and that businesses pursue profit is not the fault of economics but of human nature'.

But some economists suggested that this was not a 'fault'. And other economists suggested this was not the 'truth' ... evolution didn't do blame games ... some experiments simply didn't work. The estrangement of humanities and science seems problematic. Any culture that does not punish scientific ignoramuses, and instead hands them the keys to public life, is likely to be vulnerable — a sucker for any passing nonsense. Unpredictability, immense complexity, ethical decisions, free will & human intentionality were all evolutionary outcomes of natural selection ...

Don't forget this material intentionally challenges some orthodox economic theory to provoke thinking about Darwinian choices. Send any comments, corrections and critiques ... here


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