Two Narratives
Criticism of Evolutionary Economics

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. 

Two narratives about how happenings happened still jostle as flip flopping emotions of excitment & fear in the imaginations of folk -

pre - 1859 universal supernatural selection - belief in myth, magic & mirrors 

post - 1859 mavarick natural selection - evidence in Empirical Science

... many folk just didn't get it ... but if & when the penny dropped the implications were shattering ... 


Bottom Up Top DownCriticisms of evolutionary economics as the science of choice can be grouped into four broad categories of straw men - intentionally misrepresented propositions that are set up because they are easier to defeat than real empirical science - 

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."

The Rev Paley and Michael Behe famously weighed in on the argument from design and the impossibility of design through natural selection of successive small modifications to pre-existing variants - 

complex fob watch an obvious evidence of human design

human eye an obvious evidence of irreducible complexity

Yes but ... evidence explaining evolutionary economics comes from empirical science - observation, mathematical theory, testable hypotheses, experimental validation & peer review
... and the differential survival of pre-existing variants and the non-linear maths of Darwin's Complex Adaptive Systems is not orthodox and easily describes the process.

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' ?

'evolutionary economics' as a target. He was an unusual critic because he insisted he was 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 stoped'

Yes but ... there is no evidence of an alternative scientific theory of change
... and nothing can stop Darwin's evolution. The Laws of Nature evolved they were impossible to repeal ... by God?

3  Selfish determinism is not moral  

"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 cannot be applied 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' 

'scientific arrogance 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 is universal'.

Yes but ... morality evolved as a survival aid just like everything else
... and admitting ignorance is a prerequisite for experimentation ... Darwin's process of natural selection is a trial & error process which discovers the universal empirical evidence as amendable Laws of Nature; . 

4 Human intention is not irrelevant  

"Choices are self conscious human intentionality. Human behaviour 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. Human intentionality seemed to be an essential part of all economic and social theory.  These 'difficulties' are reminiscent of the ancient debates -

faith v. reason -- Thomas Aquinas wrestled

ancient v. modern -- the scientific revolution which hindered Copernicus

humanities v. science -- C P Snow's two cultures of 1959 which involved 'never the twain shall meet' ...

Cartesian theatres v. neural Darwinism -- dualism 'rational calculation' and 'neural Darwinism & heuristic trial & error'

Yes but ... human intentionality is explained by Darwin's natural selection
... and difficult debates are resolved only by empirical science there is no evidence of any alternative.

Darwin always had many formidable critics ...  

Know HowNevertheless the evidence from Empirical Science mounts

The evidence supporting the evolution of Complex Adaptive Systems of human behaviour ... relentlessly mounts ... a complex whole shebang & caboodle of universal Darwinism.

Evolutionary explanations for economic growth seem more and more plausible ... and no alternative scientific theory of change exists.

Empirical 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. 

A new paradigm emerges ...

ConsilienceNew Paradigm Empirical Science

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

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'.

Before 1859 there was no evolutionary theory, everybody accepted intelligent design, however since Darwin there has been a constant stream of empirical science that has provided the supporting evidence to refute the doubting critics.

After many false dawns and wrong turnings some evolutionary economists ... like Joseph Schumpeter (creative destruction), Herbert Simon (satisficing), Donald T Campbell (blind variation & selective retention), Daniel Kahneman (thinking fast & slow) ... and many more ... eventually to 'include in' all ... started to embrace empirical science and move the descriptive linear maths of old economics to the non-linear maths of evolutionary economics. 

Just for a bit of fun we can list a few breakthroughs which seem to be important to a golden thread of better understanding of science ... but all concerned were 'dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants' ... the evidence supporting the science of evolutionary economics come from the whole body of empirical science ... how daft to note a few names when we know the body of 'know how' is still evolving? Here we go ... just for a bit of fun - 

Adam Smith - moral sentiments & invisible hands of self organisation

Charles Darwin - natural selection & random mutations, pervasive explanations which exclude intelligent design

Thomas Lyell - geological change processes over deep time

Gregor Mendel - genetic inheritance 

Francis Crick & James Watson - DNA bio-chemistry and copying errors

William Hamilton - inclusive fitness, population dynamics & social cooperation

John Maynard Smith - evolutionarily stable strategies & tit for tat

Trivers - reciprocal altruism & cooperation

Robert Axelrod - positive sum games & cooperative synergies

Craig Venter & Fred Sanger - molecular biology of genomes & transfer of 'know how'

Edelman - adaptive immune systems & neural Darwinism

Richard Dawkins - universal Darwinism

Steven 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.

Boltzmann - 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & directional innovative change

Pierre Laplace - inheritance of acquired characteristics 

Henri Poincaré - unknowable 'three body' calculation problems

Alan Turing (1912-1954) - Turing Machines used logic, Darwin machines uses rounds of copy/vary/select, general software principles with parallel processing, Homo Sapiens had a rival which learned from mistakes -   

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) - 'Leviathan' dispersed whole machines 

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) - progression of life from micro-organisms to civilised society, as the struggle for existence 

Leibniz (1746-1816) - interactive parts of whole machines

Jean Baptist Lamark (1744-1829) - replication of coded info in replicating molecules

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) - machine manipulated maths

George Boole (1815–1864) - Boolean algebra from simple 0 1 to complex statistics

Alfred Smee (1818-1877) - reality (genes) and imagination (memes)

John von Neumann (1903—1957) - coded Turing's principles, bomb calculations

William Ashby (1903–1972) -

Richard Feynman (1918–1988)  -

Darwin's MachinesFrom Bacteria to Bach and Back1863 Hydes Original and Samuel Butler (1835-1902) - 'Darwin among the Machines' - Machina Sapiens (George Dyson) - self- organising, self-regulating, self-acting, self-learning machines with intellect superior to the human race. Evolution of conscious minds are inevitable ... Homo Sapiens become their reproductive 'tool'.  telecommunication/neural networks -

The evidence mounted for Darwin's 'precise process' which involved 'difficult' concepts ... Paul Krugman in 1996 clearly identified these immutable difficulties in understanding - 

'Darwin’s idea is truly, madly, deeply difficult. But it is also simple & compelling to those who understand it, utterly true, immensely sophisticated ... and extremely relevant to the modern world.
Any scientific concept is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas'

Historical Evidence involved at least Eight Difficult Difficulties -

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

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

'emergence' & 'non-linearity'- Emergent Feedback (hierarchies of evolutionary stable structures). 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) 

'know how' - 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 Economic theory.

... and ...

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

natural selection - long necked giraffes weren't designed rather short necked giraffes died out

copy/vary/select mechanism - described a natural process, nothing supernatural

origin of species - small genetic differences over aeons of generations produced big phenotype and behavioural differences

inheritance - common ancestors accumulated survival 'know how'

genetic mechanisms - explained the process but not the immensely complex physiology & embryology of Complex Adaptive Systems

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

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 ...

intentions of consciousness - are not what they seem to be!

But 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 ... 

The evidence from Empirical Science relentlessly mounts ...

GiraffesBut the penny has to drop

Giraffes & long necks ... folk & aspirations ... businesses & profit ... all were difficult to grasp examples of Complex Adaptive Systems - 

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 all is not lost; 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.

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 ...

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.

AspirationSocial 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 ... especially when 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?

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 quote 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.

Or 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?

And then 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'.

Think about a few more quotes ...

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'.

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 work others 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 ...

Paul Romer's 'Endogenous Growth Theory' explained how economic growth and wealth creation could result from the evolution of 'know how' ... 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 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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