Evolution and Economics

January 15, 2008

Dr. Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, has a fascinating article at Scientific American entitled ‘Evonomics‘. He postulates that evolution and economics are both part and parcel of the same phenomenon – complex adaptive systems.

In biological evolution, nature selects from the variation produced by random genetic mutations and the mixing of parental genes. Out of that process of cumulative selection emerges complexity and diversity. In economic evolution, our material economy proceeds through the production and selection of numerous permutations of countless products.

Quoting both Mises (“Socialism”) and Basitat, Shermer shows that top-down government “design” of the economy is a ludicrous as “design” in evolution.

As with living organisms and ecosystems, the economy looks designed—so just as humans naturally deduce the existence of a top-down intelligent designer, humans also (understandably) infer that a top-down government designer is needed in nearly every aspect of the economy. But just as living organisms are shaped from the bottom up by natural selection, the economy is molded from the bottom up by the invisible hand.  [emphasis mine]

He still thinks (sadly) some interference is necessary to ensure “free and fair trade”, but he is, at least headed in the right direction.

But what this really points to is yet another example of hypocrisy that seems to plague both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, both so-called liberals and conservatives. Each has their own cognitive dissonance here. The conservative right, staunchly defends the idea (for the most part) that the economy is molded “from the bottom up by the invisible hand” of the market, while denying the identical process that occurs in biology.  Of course, the liberal left seems to have the opposite problem – while rightly defending the process of evolution and natural selection, they fail to see this exact same process in the field of economics and claim that the government is needed to manage the market.

One cannot support true free market economics and deny evolution nor can one deny the power of the true free market while vehemently supporting evolution.  Interference in the market causes unexpected distortions and unintended consequences just as interfering with evolution does.

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9 Responses to “Evolution and Economics”


  1. As I’ve written previously (by “socialism” meaning “state socialism”):

    Most creationists profess to hold socialism in disdain; most socialists profess to hold creationism in disdain. Neither side seems sufficiently disturbed by the strong similarity between the two viewpoints.

    Both creationists and socialists distrust invisible-hand processes and cannot conceive of order emerging except through some sort of centralised top-down control. (And neither side has much fondness for Herbert Spencer!)

    From now on I’m calling creationism “cosmic socialism,” and socialism “political creationism.”

  2. theconverted Says:

    “Cosmic socialism” and “Political creationism”.

    Beautiful Roderick. Just perfect. Mind if I use that too?


  3. […] draw the parallels in a major science publication, and our fellow blogger theConverted gives a nice analysis of Dr. Michael Shermer’s recent SciAm paper on “Evonomics” which apparently comes […]

  4. XOmniverse Says:

    I believe the generic concept of self-organizing systems such as evolution and the market is called spontaneous order.

  5. John Says:

    Hi, Im from Melbourne.
    But what if everyone is quite literally insane?
    And the “leaders” thrown up by the system are psychopaths too—as per the example of the Bush administration.

    What kind of a self-organising “culture” would that produce.

    Something like the 60’s film Marat Sade perhaps—athough now extended and being dramatised all over the planet

    How else could you describe the dreadful “sanity” of the “consumerist” mind created in the image of TV—the idiot-ising box (insanity machine) in the “living” room.

  6. swoopy Says:

    Thanks for your comments on the article in Scientific American, you did a great job of coalescing what is a rather complex subject.

    For more on this topic, read Shermer’s book “The Mind of the Market”. We’ll also be featuring an interview with Shermer this week (1/23) on Skepticality: The official podcast of the Skeptic’s Society.

  7. theconverted Says:

    Swoopy,

    Thanks for the comment…I’ve been a regular listener to Skepticality for a few years now. Thanks for dropping by.

    I’m looking forward to the interview and I’m going to be ordering the book.

    Mike

  8. Shagya Says:

    Measuring all socialists by the standard of the marxists or the NDP as examples of a bad type would be as strange as measuring all conservatives or conservatism by Harper or Bush. The state by its very existence does more than just distort the marketplace of economics. The world of ideas and language also takes a beating which is generally what Orwell was trying to say in his views on language.

  9. theconverted Says:

    Shagya,

    Well, to be fair, Roderick Long did clarify that he meant “state socialists”…


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