From Political Gridlock to Scientific Progress. The Promise of Evonomics

Can the Left and the Right play by the rules?

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By David Sloan Wilson

Evolutionists who take an interest in economics often fall along a political spectrum, just like other folks. Right-leaning evolutionists include Larry Arnhart (Darwinian Conservatism), Michael Shermer (The Mind of the Market), and Matt Ridley, whose book The Evolution of Everything (not to be confused with my own Evolution for Everyone) is hot off the press. Left-leaning evolutionists include Herbert Gintis (The Bounds of Reason), Samuel Bowles (A Cooperative Species), Lynn Stout (Cultivating Conscience), and Peter Singer (The Most Good You Can Do). Evolutionists such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) and Robert Frank (The Darwin Economy ) hold down the center and offer interesting commentary on the left-right divide.

It would be easy to conclude that nothing new is taking place, other than a new playing field for the same old tired gridlock. On the contrary, I think that something new is taking place, or at least can take place — which is the promise of Evonomics.

First let me clarify what the terms “Evolutionist” and “Evonomics” mean to me. The term “evolutionary biologist” is familiar because evolutionary theory has been confined to biology for most of its history. The term “evolutionist” without qualifiers signifies that evolutionary theory is being applied to all things human in addition to the rest of life.

“Evonomics” stands for the “Next Evolution of Economics” but to me it represents the field of economics resting on the foundations of evolution and complexity science. It’s similar to “evolutionary economics,” but the two terms have different histories. “Evolutionary economics” came into use in the 1980s with books such as Nelson and Winter’s An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, while “Evonomics” was coined by Michael Shermer in a 2007 Scientific American article to describe how the cultural evolution of stuff in modern life is like biological evolution. employs Shermer’s term because it is snappier, but the study of economics from an evolutionary perspective is free to go beyond the visions of those who first used the terms, just as evolutionary theory has gone beyond the visions of Darwin and Wallace. I in particular look forward to crossing swords with my friend Michael Shermer on some of the details.

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As a branch of evolutionary science, evolutionary economics is a scientific discipline. This might seem to go without saying, but a lot of economic discourse — much of it intertwined with political discourse — is not scientific. My own path to studying economics is worth relating on this point.

I am trained as an evolutionary biologist, where everyone is expected to operate in scientific mode. I include our own species in my study of evolution, which leads me to study topics such as religion, but my approach is the same as when I study topics such as mites that hitchhike on the backs of beetles or personality differences in fish. In 2007 I helped create the Evolution Institute, a think thank with the same aspirations as other think tanks — to formulate wise public policy — but in our case from an evolutionary perspective. The 2008 economic crisis caused me to begin thinking seriously about economics for the first time, with the resources of a small but growing think tank at my disposal.

As I describe in my book The Neighborhood Project, this was like the gentle hobbit Frodo making his way toward Mordor. I entered a world of unsurpassed strangeness, dominated by a body of thought—so-called orthodox economic theory—that bore no resemblance to reality whatsoever. Its assumptions about human preferences and abilities were absurd, as a branch of economics called behavioral economics had no trouble showing. Behavioral economics was called “heterodox,” along with a ragtag collection of other schools of thought that included evolutionary economics and ecological economics. In my world, ecology, evolution, and behavior had become fused into a single discipline often labeled by the acronym EEB. Nothing like that was occurring in the world of economics. When I did a search to see how many times the word “evolution” was used in the book Nudge, by behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the number was zero.

I was not alone in my journey to Mordor. As president of the Evolution Institute, I had the capacity to organize a conference in 2009 funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), followed by a series of four workshops under NESCent’s “working group” rubric, which resulted in a 2013 special issue of the Journal of Economic and Behavior Organization titled “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy”. Then the Evolution Institute collaborated with the Ernst Strungmann Forum to stage a 2015 conference titled “Complexity and Evolution: A New Synthesis for Economics.” The planning committee included Alan Kirman, Eric Beinhocker, Ulrich Witt, and Peter Turchin and brought 44 experts together for a five-day period, resulting in a volume that will be published by MIT Press in 2016. I might have been unschooled at the beginning of my journey, but at this point I qualify as among the cognoscenti.

The thesis of the Ernst Strungmann Forum was that the proper theoretical foundation of economics is a combination of complexity theory (in part because economic systems are often out of equilibrium) and evolutionary theory (in part to get assumptions about human preferences and abilities— inevitably including evolved human nature — right).

While all of the conference participants were united on this point, we were divided on how to frame it. Some wanted to boldly announce a new synthesis while others wanted to take a more conciliatory approach to orthodox economic theory. The economist David Colander was a member of the conciliatory camp. In his book with physicist Roland Kupers titled Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up, they employ the metaphor of two mountains separated by a valley, one taller than the other. The short mountain is orthodox economic theory. Talent was required to climb it and it offers a view of sorts, but going higher requires going down (abandoning core assumptions of orthodox economics) before going up. This metaphor is similar to that of adaptive peaks in evolutionary theory, which Richard Dawkins also employed in Climbing Mount Improbable.

So take your pick of metaphors—my journey to Mordor or Colander and Kruper’s trek down one mountain slope and up another. Either way, you arrive at a new scientific foundation for economics and public policy based on a combination of complexity theory and evolutionary theory.

Friedrich Hayek can justly be regarded as a pioneer of the new synthesis, with his emphasis on societies designed by cultural group selection rather than by intentional planning. He was seldom mentioned during the five-day conference, however. In fact, I can’t recall him being mentioned at all except when I brought him up in private conversation with Ulrich Witt, a highly respected evolutionary economist who knows Hayek’s work as well as anyone.

According to Ulrich, obsessive concern with Hayek is an American phenomenon that has no counterpart in Europe. So much has happened in the study of complexity and evolution since Hayek that his writings don’t have much to contribute to the subject, even if he was a pioneer. Consider that the Santa Fe Institute, which has done so much to launch the study of complex systems, wasn’t founded until 1984. Like important early figures in evolutionary biology such as August Weismann, Hayek should be remembered in a scholarly way, especially to understand the history of ideas, but need not dominate current conversation.

This illustrates an important difference between scientific and non-scientific discourse. Scientific discourse focuses on ideas, not people. When a figure such as Hayek becomes the center of attention, as if all that matters is what he said or didn’t say, then that is a good sign that the participants are not functioning in scientific mode.

What does it mean to function in scientific mode? First, there must be a serviceable theoretical framework, whose assumptions at least crudely approximate the object of study; in this case human economic systems. Second, it must be possible to formulate alternative hypotheses about any given aspect of economic systems that can be tested with empirical data. If we can’t go back and forth between hypothesis formation and testing, then we can’t make scientific progress.

It is not required for the scientists to be unbiased, which would be impossible in any case. Scientists are flesh-and-blood people like everyone else. Some will be politically left-leaning or right-leaning and this will cause them to propose different hypotheses (e.g., concerning the ability of price systems to regulate economic activities for the common good). The difference is that when people operate in scientific mode, they are forced to change their minds when their hypotheses are rejected on the basis of empirical data or logical contradiction. Science progresses, unlike political gridlock.

To say that science progresses does not mean that it progresses smoothly or easily. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept of paradigms to emphasize how scientists can get stuck within certain configurations of ideas, with paradigmatic change a messy and uncertain process. I am a veteran of a scientific controversy (group selection) that took over half a century to resolve itself. (Yes, it is resolved.) Even so, the ability of the scientific process to arrive at the facts of the matter is magnificent, compared to the endless clash of unsubstantiated ideas.

This makes me confident that Evonomics will not merely be another way for people to spin their political biases without any resolution. looks forward to featuring the views of anyone who has become knowledgable about modern evolutionary and complexity science and abides by the rules of scientific discourse, no matter what their political leanings. This is what motivated Robert Kadar and Joe Brewer, with my wholehearted support, to form a collaborative network of people creating and curating content, and hosting lively scientific debate. Let the best hypothesis win. If we can’t change our minds on the basis of empirical evidence, then shame on us.

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