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 - 

Human Behaviour is not Biology. Evolutionary Economics is focused on biological science and neglects the complexity of human behaviour.

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.

Unscientific. Evolutionary Economics is focused on a deterministic future and neglects an unknowable, uncertain, unpredictable, indeterminate reality.
A descriptive fantasy and not an orthodox predictive mathematical science. Darwinian theory does not apply to economics.

Selfishness is Immoral . Evolutionary Economics is focused on self interest and neglects normative moral sentiments.
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.

Human Intentions matter. Evolutionary Economics is focused on natural selection and neglects 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.

These difficulties are reminiscent of ancient debates -

 the faith v. reason debate which Thomas Aquinas wrestled with

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

the 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' ...

and there were many formidable critics -

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

the '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 ... my italics ... there is a strong argument against arrogance ... admitting ignorance is a prerequisite for experimentation.

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.

Raymond Tallis more recently 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'.

but 'the blind watchmaker has  acquired eyes' ?

Perhaps Tallis was tilting at windmills, he specifically identified, 'evolutionary economics' as a target, but his criticisms described a straw man and conflict directly with other interpretations & studies in evolutionary economics which suggested unpredictability, immense complexity, ethical decisions, free will & human intentionality are all evolutionary outcomes of natural selection ...

Tallis 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'

... to be replaced by ... what? ... an alternative theory of change?

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 suggest this was not a 'fault'.

Other economists suggest this was not the 'truth' ... evolution didn't do blame games ... some experiments simply didn't work.

A 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.

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 not 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 & 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 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 - entropy, moral sentiments, invisible hands, blind watchmakers, impossibility theorems, endogenous growth, comparative advantage ...

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 and predators ... 

Great men were often misinterpreted.

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

Adam Smith 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.

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'.

How can 'know how' be stolen? How can cooperation be confiscated? Think about it ... 

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. 

Evolutionary economic concepts; inheritance with modification & differential survival, are simple but the penny has to drop -

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. 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.

My own study of family history, science and evolution suggests I can understand the immense complexity of the behaviour of my great grandfather because I have direct experience of the same universal emotional feelings but I know Darwin's process of evolution produces 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 ...

Don't forget to send me your comments, corrections and critique ... here
back to evolutionary economics